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Saturday, June 8, 2013

Making your communications accessible to people with disabilities

The clear, concise writing and design principles of plain language can be applied effectively to making documents--from brochures to signs to websites--more accessible. That is, plain language can make all kinds of communication materials easier to read and understand by people with physical and mental disabilities as well as low literacy and limited English proficiency.

Since at least 1990 in the United States, government agencies, private employers, and organizations open to the public have had to consider federal requirements for making their facilities, services and communications accessible to people with disabilities. The requirements are outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and amendments to it in 2008. 

Other countries--including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and the European Union--also have federal accessibility laws. 

I've had a longtime interest in the U.S. law for several reasons:
  • I worked as an editor and public information officer for more than 30 years with public agencies in the Seattle, King County area, most often for the public transit agency. 
  • The law affected the ways we wrote, designed and provided communication materials--and the facilities and services we described in them. For example, were our brochures accessible to people with disabilities? Can people with impaired vision or hearing read them or get the information in them in alternative ways?
  • My older brother, now deceased, had a mental disability but used public transit and other public accommodations. 
According to Wikipedia:
Accessibility is the degree to which a product, device, service, or environment is available to as many people as possible. Accessibility can be viewed as the "ability to access" and benefit from some system or entity. The concept often focuses on people with disabilities or special needs (such as the [United Nations] Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) and their right of access, enabling the use of assistive technology.
Prompting this blog item today is a website of the New Zealand Office of Disability Issues, titled "Make your communications accessible." The site provides "quick tips for writers, communicators, designers and production houses."

The resource is available to read on the Web and as a downloadable PDF document. It covers these topics:

  • Accessibility overview
  • More people understand plain language
  • How to talk to, and about, disabled people
  • Make print accessible
  • Email and web accessibility
  • Specialised formats.
The section that says "More people understand plain language" provides this advice (and links to "A guide to making ‘easy-read’ information"):
  • Know your audience.
  • Use everyday language readers are familiar with.
  • Use short, clear sentences (15–20 words).
  • One idea in a sentence is best.
  • Keep paragraphs short with one subject in one paragraph.
  • Avoid using a multi-syllable word when a shorter one will do.
  • Avoid jargon, acronyms, technical words and details and, if you must use an acronym, always provide a full version the first time you mention it.
  • Use active rather than passive verbs, for example `Peter kicked the ball’ rather than `the ball was kicked by Peter’.
  • Use `you’ and `we’.
  • Give straightforward instructions, for example `Please reply to this letter’.
  • Be helpful, human and polite.
  • It is okay to use lists, like this one, where appropriate.
The site also provides links to other information guides and tool kits. Many of them are designed to help users implement the New Zealand Disability Strategy. But they also could be useful in other counties, covering these broad topics:
  • Being responsive to disabled people
  • Communications, information and resources
  • Access and mobility around the community.
I provide more information about plain language (aka plain English) at Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide.

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An article on the New Zealand information is featured today, June 8, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

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