Accessible language for everyone; lessons from sport

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Sport might seem an unlikely place to find accessible information advice, but this week there was plenty, at the English Federation of Disability Sport.

I was attending an event called Active Communications. Three key themes soon appeared:

  • accessibility is for everyone
  • plan accessibility from the start
  • there are many types of disability, including hidden disabilities

Hidden disabilities

I liked these themes, and the comprehensive view of disability. Several types of disability were mentioned, including ‘hidden disabilities’.  But when hidden disabilities were explained, one disability remained invisible.

This invisible disability is probably the most common barrier to accessing communications. It occurs on its own, and is also associated with many other disabilities and health conditions. This disability can be developmental, acquired or fluctuating, and is also a natural part of ageing.

This hidden disability is language impairment. Mild, undiagnosed and situational language difficulties are also a significant cause of poor functional literacy.

So how can we plan accessibility, to include everyone’s language needs?

Accessible language for everyone

Adapting language should be an integral part of communications. If we don’t adapt, we’re writing for our own level of language and literacy.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Writing for your own level is easy.  It’s easy because I don’t have to think about the words and sentences, they just happen. I can concentrate on what I want to say (the content). I use connectives and other language forms to create rich language, that co-ordinates, subordinates, and flows (I hope!).

Working out how to say the same thing, using less complex sentences, is difficult. It takes thought, it takes time. And it doesn’t feel natural. It doesn’t even sound right sometimes. Sometimes, it’s impossible to say exactly the same thing more simply.

The Information Accessibility Gap

But if we don’t adapt, we’re writing only for people at the same literacy level as ourselves. If we’re a medium-high literacy reader/ writer, we inadvertently contribute to the Information Accessibility Gap, which excludes the ‘average’ reader.

It is usually possible to say the same thing more simply. And sometimes a loss of meaning  meets our customers’ language, literacy and knowledge needs. To plug the Information Accessibility Gap, and produce accessible information for all, language adaptation needs to be integral to all communications.

Accessibility from the start

Planning accessibility from the start was strong message at the Active Communications event.

Without identifying our audience’s needs from the beginning, language accessibility becomes an add-on, rather than an integrated process. If we convert a document into Plain English, or Easy Read, we have nothing to guide our adaptations. We need to know: is the content suitable for our target audience? And what type and level of adaptations does our audience need?

The Accessible Information Ladder

Traditional simplification approaches impose a ready-made solution, whatever our audience needs.  To support a more tailored planning process, I have developed a multilevel framework, called the Accessible Information Ladder.

The Accessible Information Ladder incorporates ten components of accessible information, which can be used to understand, and meet, customers’ language, literacy and knowledge needs. The Ladder informs communication planning, and writing style, systematically and objectively, to improve reach, ease of understanding, and use.

When used as a resource to plan, create and evaluate accessible communications, the Ladder contributes to the process of Sense Making Optimisation. Sense Making Optimisation maximises accessibility, and creates accessible language for everyone.

The invisible disability

Language disability is difficult to see, and easy to overlook. People with language impairment often develop a range of strategies to compensate for, and hide, their difficulties.  They may function well, or well enough, in a social setting, with everyday conversation topics and contextual cues. When information is abstract, complex, formal, lengthy or decontextualised, understanding quickly breaks down.

Invisibility in Plain English

What is surprising, perhaps, is that people with learning and language disabilities have been largely invisible in the development of Plain English and Easy Read writing styles. (The Easy Read writing style is the same as Plain English).

The needs of people with learning and language disabilities have not contributed to popular style guidelines. These guidelines were developed by high literacy readers in the mid 20th century, and were adopted by Governments, disability groups, and others, as a tool to make accessible information.

When Plain English tips don’t work

As I look at the Plain English tips I received at the event, three immediately stand out as problematic. One of these – pronouns – contradicts common language disability needs. Another – bullet points – creates an illusion of short sentences, whilst actually creating very long sentences, with low cohesion. The third – short sentences, of 15-20 words – is contradictory, as any sentence needs some complexity to build to 20 words.

The plain Remain message

I know of no empirical research underpinning the ideal of 15-20 words. (Please let me know if you do). Sentence length correlates with simplicity, but it’s not guaranteed.

As I wrote this blog, the contentious Remain leaflet landed through my door. The title is 19 words long. By Plain English standards, this should be fine:

Why the Government believes that voting to remain in the European Union is the best decision for the UK.

The title is actually an extremely complex sentence, which will be off-putting to many people. Perhaps the Brexit campaign need not worry, when their opposition self-inflicts barriers to understanding.

An average length

But Plain English advocates will tell me I am wrong. The aim is an average of 15-20 words. Inside the Remain leaflet there are other long sentences, but also snappy phrases, such as:

We will not join the EU (6 words)


Pay into the EU (4 words)

These short phrases/ sentences reduce the average sentence length, towards Plain English and Easy Read norms.

To readers with language impairment, a mixture of short and long sentences will make little difference to accessibility. A sentence is one part of a text, which forms an overall message, or semantic unit.  If you only understand the short sentences, you won’t understand the whole text.

Take any text near you now (preferably one you haven’t already read), delete every third sentence (to simulate incomprehension of long sentences), and attempt to read and understand. It will involve a lot of guess work, with lots of opportunity for errors and misunderstanding.

Origins of an ideal sentence length

So why do popular writing guides suggest an average sentence length, and why 15-20 words?

For information producers, sentence length is a numerical and objective measure. It ticks boxes. It sells.

An ideal length was invented by early developers of readability formulae, to reduce reading grades. The reading grades generated by the reading formulae they had invented.

The formulae came first, based on what could be counted, and the writing guides were developed to meet the formulae.

The expert lawyer

Rupert Flesch, a pioneer of reading formulae, developed his ideal sentence length by counting words in Readers’ Digest, and other popular publications. He was a lawyer, and was committed to reducing ‘legalese’. A good cause, and a 20 word sentence might look short if you are a lawyer.  But Flesch was not a linguist, nor worked (as far as my research suggests) with people with disabilities.

The Flesch Kincaid Reading Grade is now incorporated into Word Documents, perpetuating an understanding of language as numerical, and accessibility evidenced by counting words.

Accessibility updated

Sentence length seems objective, but decisions on how to reduce length are subjective, without an understanding of sentence structure and language needs. Some Plain English and Easy Read writing techniques are effective, for some audiences. But even when these techniques are effective, the reasons justifying the method are often subjective, and sometimes vague.

We need theory, and an objective understanding of language, and language disabilities, to make informed choices about how to adapt communications successfully.

Easy Read research

Recent research, by Speech and Language Therapist (SLT) Susan Buell, investigated whether Easy Read helped understanding, in 60 adults with learning disabilities. Susan found Easy Read makes no significant difference to understanding.

My own Easy Read research draws on the same model of reading comprehension, as a complex, multilevel process. My findings seem counter intuitive – I found Plain English and Easy Read techniques, and how they are interpreted, are increasing difficulty for people with learning and language disabilities.

Easier English

Following on from my study, I have developed Easier English. Easier English draws on reading and communication theories, research with people with communication disabilities, and my SLT clinical experience working with people with communications disabilities.

Easier English is set within the planning framework of the Accessible Information Ladder. Easier English provides a structured, responsive approach to creating and adapting content and language.

Easier for everyone

Easier English is for everyone, including the ‘average’ reader, people with disabilities, and carers who provide personalised communication support. Easier English starts with understanding your audience, so each component of the Ladder is informed by need. And Easier English involves people with communication disabilities, with its emphasis on need, and research basis.

It is possible to create accessible communications for everyone, if we plan accessibility from the start.

More information

For more about increasing language accessibility, please see Easier English, or contact us.


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