Plain language: accessibility for information

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  • I always like it when worlds collide, showing that we can start from different goals, but end up with similar guidelines. One of those happy collisions is plain language and accessibility.  If you are looking for one thing you can focus on to improve your web site content, plain language is a good place to start. Making information clear helps everyone because:

    • People read with different degrees of literacy. Clearly written information helps those who don’t read well.
    • They do not always read carefully. Even skilled readers may be scanning a page quickly.
    • They may have a cognitive, language, or learning disability. Understandable vocabulary is an important part of making information clear.
    • Visual disabilities can affect reading, so presenting text well helps, too.
    • They may not know (or read) the language well. In a global web, readers may be from anywhere in the world.

    I’ll be teaching a class on writing in plain language at AccessU, in Austin on May 12-13, 2014. But if you can’t join us at this great conference, my slides are available online on (where you can download an accessible Powerpoint file).

    For the accessibility side of this collision, plain language is part of the WCAG 2.0 accessibility guidelines, especially “3.1 Readable: Make text content readable and understandable.” But  well-written content is also helpful for meeting other guidelines, by making sure that:

    • Headings and field labels organize the content in a descriptive way that supports readers. (WCAG 2.4.6 and 2.4.10)
    • Users can understand what will happen when they click on a link because the link is written clearly and presented in a clear context. (WCAG 2.4.4 and 2.4.9)
    • Instructions and help are available, especially for interactive features and forms. (WCAG 3.3.2 and 3.3.5)
    • Unusual words that the audience may not know and abbreviations are explained. (WCAG 3.1.3, 3.1.4, 3.1.6)

    The plain language advocates also point out the understanding information can be a civil right. This is especially true when the information comes from your government, or affects your rights and benefits as a citizen. But it can be just as important in reading contracts, terms of service, or instructions for using a product. At TEDxO’Porto a few years ago, Sandra Fisher-Martins, of Português Claro, gave one of the best presentations ever on this perspective.

    It’s in Portuguese, with English subtitles so I’ve posted the transcript here.

    Transcript: The Right To Understand, Sandra Fisher-Martins

    Good evening

    The story I’d like to tell you started in 1996, when I was studying in England.

    One day, I was looking through my bank statement, even though there wasn’t much to look at and, in the top corner, I noticed a symbol which said that this document had been written in plain language, so I could understand it.

    I thought this idea interesting, so did a bit of research and found out there was a campaign for language simplification. I thought it a fabulous idea, and then forgot about it.

    When I returned to Portugal, I was confronted with several documents, for example, my work contract, the mortgage agreement, the power bill documents which reminded me of that symbol [ the Crystal Mark ] not because they were clear and simple, but because they were the exact opposite. Because, only after a second or third reading, I could begin to understand them.

    So the little seed that had been sown in ’96 started to grow. And, one day, I found myself walking into the boss’ office and quitting my job so I could dedicate myself to this.

    Right from the start, I realized the problem was a lot more serious than I thought. Not only were these documents complex and annoying, but literacy, which is the ability to understand written documents, was very low in Portugal.

    Here’s a graphic about literacy in Portugal. There’s still about 10% of Portuguese who can’t read or write at all. This graphic shows us the ones who can – or claim they can – read and write.

    So, there we have the red group which represents those who are on the lowest literacy level, Level 1. They’re those who can join up letters to make words, but can’t actually understand what they read. For example, if they need to read a medicine leaflet to figure out the correct dose to give their child, they can’t. They can’t understand the information. That’s 50% of the Portuguese.

    Then we have another 30%, the guys in yellow. These are the ones who can get by, as long as they don’t have to read anything new or different. So, for example, if they work in a factory and a new machine arrives and they have to read the manual to operate it, they can’t.

    And that’s already 80% of the Portuguese.

    Then there’s a few who can handle documents as long as they’re not too complex. And there’s 5% of the population who can understand truly complex documents.

    And just so you don’t think this is the norm, that other graphic shows literacy in Sweden. While we have 20% of people with a literacy level considered essential for daily living, Sweden has 75%.

    And looking at this graphic, I realized we live in an information apartheid. I realized there’s a small minority who can access information and use it for their benefit and a huge majority who can’t. And because they can’t, they’re excluded and at a disadvantage.

    I’ll give you an example. That’s Mr. Domingos. He’s our building’s janitor. He started reading when he was 27. He’s in the yellow group we saw earlier. Once in a while, he comes to me and says “Miss Sandra, I got this little letter…” Whenever Mr. Domingos or someone in his family gets a letter they don’t understand he brings it to me and I help translate it. So, that time he said, “I was about to throw this in the bin, but could you just check if it’s something important?” It was. Mr. Domingos had been waiting for some time to have knee surgery and it was he letter that contained a “Surgery Voucher.” When someone has been waiting a long time for surgery, they’re sent this voucher that can be used at a private clinic. And Mr. Domingo’s letter almost went in the bin.

    Later, I found out that, in that same year, only 20% of those vouchers had been used. I find it hard to believe the other 80% just got better while they waited. They probably did what Mr. Domingos was about to do: “What’s this? Don’t get it. It’s rubbish.” They missed the opportunity to have the surgery they needed.

    When people don’t understand, it has serious consequences, not only for themselves, but also for the whole country. If I don’t know my rights or the benefits I’m entitled to, I probably don’t know my responsibilities either and I’m not an active and participating citizen.

    And now, maybe you’re sitting there thinking “Poor Domingos, that’s tough.” “Me? I’m a green one. I’m pretty sure I’m a green. I was invited to come to TEDx.” But let me read you a few things I’ve got here and we’ll see what color you are when I’m done.

    This one is from a car insurance policy. It says:

    “Unless otherwise stipulated, upon demise of the insured person, the insured capital is provided, in case of predeceasement of the beneficiary relative to the insured person, to the latter’s heirs. In case of commorientes of the insured and it’s beneficiary, to the later’s heirs.”

    Next, I’ve got a medicine leaflet, “Beware. Erytheme, edema, vesiculation, keratites and urtication can still occur.” Got that?

    This one is really good. Is signed the new office’s tenancy agreement on Friday and it said: “I, the guarantor, assume the tempestive payment of the lease, waiving the benefits of division and previous exclusion.” When I read “tempestive payment” I pictured myself barging into the landlord’s office, slamming the door and shouting “HERE’S THE MONEY!” But that’s not what it means. It’s not.

    When we move away from our area of expertise, and we don’t’ have to go very far, it doesn’t have to be string theory, when we move away from our area of expertise, we’re as much in the dark as Mr. Domingos. And these are not documents written by experts for experts like the string theory ones. These are documents written for me. These are public documents. Documents I need to understand to get by daily. To live my life. The tenancy agreements, the medicine leaflets, the power bills. All these should be clear, so we can understand them. Because, what happens if they’re not?

    I’ll give you an example of mistakes, bad decisions, due to misunderstandings of bad documents. You remember the “subprime crisis” in the United States? People were signing agreements without truly understanding what they were agreeing to. If they knew, they would have realized as soon as interest rates went up, their mortgage payments would shoot through the roof. Do you think that, if the financial sector had a culture … captions missing…

    This huge gap between the average literacy level, and the complexity of public documents, all the way… captions missing …

    Well, the most obvious solution, given that literacy is .. captions missing… Let’s teach people. It’s obvious. Of course we must teach people. But it’s hard, and it’s slow. I don’t even want to imagine how many generations it will take for us to reach Sweden’s level. But it’s not just because it’s slow. There is another reason. If the documents’ language isn’t simpler, we already see that even people with high literacy, people like you guys, struggle to understand a document if the language is complex. Yes, we must improve literacy, but right now, it’s much more important to reduce public documents’ complexity and simplify language.

    I’ll give you an example. this is what I mean by “simplify language.” This is an extract from an insurance contract: “It’s agreed the insurer blah blah blah…” Compare the before and after versions. This is what I mean by “simplifying language.” It’s communicating in a simple and clear way so that our reader understanding it the first time. Which one do you prefer? Pretty obvious, isn’t it?

    So, how can we get the government and businesses to communicate with citizens in a language they can easily understand? There are several ways. Some countries have take the legislative route. Last year, the U.S. and Sweden passed laws which require the State to communicate with people in a language they can understand.

    You might think: “But that’s normal. Sweden and the U.S. are more advanced than us.”
    “It would be nice if we also had these laws, wouldn’t it?”

    It would. And you know what? We do. Since 1999. The administrative modernization law says the communication between State and the people must be simple, clear, concise, meaningful, without acronyms, etc. etc… But no one complies with this law. The legislation route only works in countries where laws are made to be applied.

    But there is another way. The marketing way. And how does it work? Private companies simplify tier language, they make a big song and dance about it, consumers love it, sales go up. Works a treat. But it works just for the private sector.

    And there is a third way, which for me is the most important. It’s through civic movements, which are based on a change of mindset.

    In those countries where this succeeded – remember the English symbol of the Plain English Campaign? it’s often based on consumers’ movements.

    And how do you star a civic movement? We need to understand two very important things. First, wanting to understand public documents, it’s not a whim, its not intellectual curiosity. t’s a daily need and, most of all, it’s a right. It’s everyone’s right.

    So, understanding is a right. But there’s something else. Those who write, must write to be understood. How do we make this work? First, we need to become more demanding consumers and citizens. Think about it. Next time someone hands you a document you just can’t understand don’t just let it go and pretend you get it. No, demand to understand. Ask questions. I know it’s not easy to ask the guy in the suit: “This bit here in the contract, what does it mean?” It’s not easy at all. Maybe even a bit embarrassing. But don’t worry. It’s actually a sign of intelligence. What do you teach your child to do when they have a question at school? “Be really quiet, pretend you know and make a clever face.” That’s not it, is it? You say: “When you don’t know, stick your hand up and ask until you get it.”

    And that’s exactly what we need to do as consumes and citizens. Next time you’re handed a document you don’t get, demand to understand. Put pride to one side for a bit and ask until it’s all clear.

    Then there’s another side. Those bad documents don’t just fall from the sky. Someone wrote them. In such a large audience, there are probably some lawyers, public servants…Don’t worry, I’m not asking you to stand up. But I do ask you to think about it. How many times do you write documents for the public, for those who don’t share your language, and you do it in a way that only you will understand? And you’ll say: “But there’s a reason for it.”

    My friends, I’ve heard them all. There are thousands of them: “It’s the way we’ve always done it,” “my boss…” “the judge…” “what if it goes to court?” “You want to destroy language,” “We have to educate people,” “We can’t lower the standard.” Blah blah blah. I’ve heard them all. They’re all excuses.

    Someone mentioned Einstein before. He said once: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” For Einstein.

    So… (arggh running out of time!) If you know what you want to say, you just need to believe it is possible to write it in a clear way. And how do you do it? It’s very easy. You write for your Grandmother. I’ll show you Grandma. You write with respect and without patronizing her. And you use these three techniques.

    First of all, you start with what’s most important. Grandma is busy. She’s not going to read three full pages just to get to the main idea. Start with what’s most important.

    Second, use short sentences. Because Grandma, like any of us, if the sentences are too long, by the time she gets to the end, she won’t remember the beginning.

    And finally, the third: use simple words. Those that Grandma already knows. OK? It’s easy.

    Before I leave, I’d like to tell you about Claro. It’s a social responsibility project with the aim of changing the way public communication is made. What do we do?

    We’ll start this year with a collection of Clear Guides. We’re going to take very complex subjects and boil them down to the essentials. We’ll start with the Clear Guide of the Justice System, which, I think, will be very useful.

    Another thing we’ll do is give prizes to the best and worst documents. Because there are people out there trying to communicate clearly and should be rewarded. And there’s some lazy ones who don’t even try and should be humiliated. So, we’ll award the best and worst. I’m counting on you to help out. The campaign will be launched through Claro’s Facebook page. So become friends and you’ll be up to date.

    But finally, most of all, what does Claro want? We want to put two ideas in your heads.

    First demand to understand.
    Second, write to be understood.

    Write for Grandma. But if you don’t have a Grandma, write for Mr. Domingos. He’ll appreciate it.

    Thank you.