The origins of accessible information come from, and a narrowing intended audience:
Self advocacy and social inclusion
Accessible information in the UK has its roots in the 1970’s, with the growth of self advocacy for people with disabilities. The Plain English campaign was launched in 1979, and document and information ‘design’ gained substantial interest throughout the 1980’s.
By the early 1990’s the government responded to a rapidly expanding demand for information, and acknowledged the importance of information for access to services and social inclusion. In the private and public sectors information was increasingly seen as a commodity which needed to be managed, controlled and even legislated for.
In this new ‘information-intensive’ society, people with disabilities increasingly gained control of their lives through self advocacy. People First was founded on 1988, and the Government’s Central Office for Information (COI) established an Informability Unit in 1993. The unit published an ‘Informability Guide’ to improve information provision for people with ‘literacy problems’ and disabilities.
Models of disability
The medical model of disability was gradually replaced with the social model, and more attention was paid to the information needs of people with disabilities. Several reports were published by the Policy Studies Institute in the mid 1990s, with the aim of improving communication services.
Access for disabled people
The Department of Health funded a National Disability Information Project (NDIP) in 1993, to evaluate how well ‘national disablement information providers’ met the needs of locally based services, and to produce recommendations for more effective information.
A National Disability Information Project Conference was held the same year. Papers were presented with the theme of ‘Information Enables: Improving Access to Information Services for Disabled People’.
The conference looked at ‘the right to know; the place of information provision in the disability movement; the role of the statutory sector in supporting local information services; informing people with learning disabilities; informing people about disability benefits; and information as an enabling tool’.
Findings from the National Disability Information Project were published in a report of 1994 (‘From National to Local: An Evaluation of the Effectiveness of National Disablement Information Providers’ Services to Local Disablement Information Providers’, C. Barnes).
Under the heading ‘Plain language’, 50% of local providers said they found information by national providers was ‘very heavy’, ‘too detailed’, with ‘inaccessible language’ that was ‘not much good for us’, and had to be deciphered and reinterpreted.
According to the report, people in local organisations wanted information that was ‘easy to use’ with ‘good graphics, straightforward well organised text in jargon free plain language written in easily readable print’.
The NDIP report also tells us that ‘plain language’ was not always ‘enough’, and people with learning difficulties, sensory impairments, and people whose first language is not English need information in ‘accessible forms’ such as graphics and Braille.
The Policy Studies Institute also recommended that people with disabilities were able to influence the development of information services to ensure information was accessible, ‘in the form they choose’ (‘Planning and Evaluating Disability Information Services’, R. Simpkins 1993).
From 1992 to 1994 the Department of Health-funded a project to develop accessible information for people with learning disabilities. Virginia Moffatt, who ran the project, said: ‘At the time, the ideas were quite challenging, and I struggled to get everyone to take them seriously’.
The Disability Discrimination Act introduced equal rights for people with disabilities in 1995, and ‘The Informability Manual’ was updated a year later. The audience for this accessibility guide was very wide – it was for people with low literacy, sensory impairment, disability, ethnic minority groups, ‘general audiences’ and ‘everyone’.
By the end of the 20th century the rights and needs of people with disabilities were being increasingly recognised in information policy and provision.
The first Easy Read?
Easy Read is a way of simplifying information for people with learning disabilities. People First claim to have ‘developed the idea of Easy Read’ in 1996, although information with simple sentences and pictures was in use beforehand, for people with learning disabilities.
Audiences for accessible information
Social and political context influenced both the style of accessible writing, and its audiences. As disability campaigning grew stronger, the focus of accessibility appears to have grown narrower, so that ‘everyone’ was no longer the target audience for accessible information by the end of the 20th century.
The NHS was committed to improving information for patients (2000), and produced a Toolkit for Producing Patient Information (2003) for ‘patients, their carers and people who use NHS services’.
‘Valuing People’ stated the importance of accessible information for people with learning disabilities and carers (2001). ‘The Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ to information in accessible formats (UN 2006) was reiterated by the Disability Rights Commission ‘Easy Read: How to use Easy Words and Pictures’ for people with learning disabilities (2006).
In 2007 the Office for Disability Issues published ‘Five principles for producing better information for disabled people’.
From 2008 the Equality Act stated organisations had a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments to provide information in an accessible format for people with disabilities.
The Departments for Health, and Work and Pensions published reports on accessible information and Easy Read for disabled and ethnic minority groups in 2009.
The Department of Health published guidance for commissioners of Easy Read for people with learning disabilities, and ‘other’ groups eg English as a second language, BSL, black & minority ethnic.
This narrowing of audiences inadvertently excluded people who had an acquired communication disability, or underlying language and cognitive processing difficulties that cause poor functional literacy.
Accessible Information Standard
The Accessible Information Standard was introduced by NHS England in 2016. Publicly funded health and social care providers now have a mandatory duty to meet the information and communication needs of patients and service users, if their needs are related to a disability.
The AIS is a great step forward for people with sensory impairments and learning disability. This focus, however, underplays the language needs of people with sensory impairments, and people with other developmental and acquired communication disabilities, maintaining a narrowed target audience.
If you were involved in the development of Easy Read, or you can help find the origin of the Easy Read methods, please get in touch.