There’s an accessibility gap in information provision, as a significant audience group is not catered for. The accessibility gap is the ‘average’ reader.
In my research I measured the reading levels of unadapted documents, and their Easy Read versions. When I plotted the reading scores of all these documents, the graph showed there were more ‘easy’ and ‘difficult’ texts, at either end of the scale, and not so many in the middle range:
The graph uses US school reading levels, which aren’t directly comparable to British levels, but it’s the shape of the (spikey) curve that’s interesting. Most unadapted information is Grade 11 or above, and most unadapted information (mostly Easy Read) is Grade 6 or below. My data is consistent with lots of other research, which shows unadapted information is too difficult for most readers, and Grade 5 is recommended for people with language and learning disabilities.
The readers in the middle
Who are the readers in the middle, who can’t fully understand unadapted information, but need more than Easy Read? To find out, I plotted the literacy levels of adults in England using the results of The International Survey of Adult Skills (published by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills in 2013).
My graph showed the majority of people are in the middle for reading ability. Like most things, adult literacy skills occur on a normal distribution curve:
By comparing both graphs, we can see there’s a mismatch between the difficulty of information and adult literacy levels. About half of all adults regularly find information too difficult to fully understand. The accessibility gap means the majority reader is a minority group in information provision.
People with reading difficulties are not a separate group
At the moment we have a dual approach to accessibility – we have unadapted, and adapted (usually called Plain English or Easy Read) texts. But when we see that literacy skills occur on a continuum, it’s harder to justify segmenting people with language and literacy difficulties as a separate target group. Is this really inclusion, or are we excluding an arbitrary section of the population by giving them different information to everyone else?
Everyone has difficulty understanding
It is true that many people find unadapted information too difficult to fully understand. But how do we decide who needs adaptation? Understanding is not just about something permanently different in the reader, we all can find information too difficult if we don’t understand the terms, we’re ill, distracted or just not interested.
Difficulties understanding are invisible
Who are the people in this accessibility gap? They are our customers, and our potential customers. They are customers who are put off by difficult messages, stay silent, make ‘wrong’ decisions, and don’t engage. They are people with mild or undiagnosed disabilities, older people, people in ill health, their carers and their support workers. They are also people whose education level is lower than the writer’s, and people whose interests and goals don’t resonate with the written message. ‘They’ are everyone.
Reading difficulty is fluctuating and invisible. Poor functional literacy is often caused by unacknowledged or undiagnosed language and cognitive processing difficulties. But comprehension level is not a static characteristic of individuals, it is also dependent on how we write and present information. Surely we should be applying good practice to everything we write, to maximise accessibility for all our readers, rather than for a minority?
Unadapted information is wasteful
As a society we dedicate a vast amount of time and effort to writing information, on and off line. Who are we talking to? The data on language complexity suggests we’re talking to people like us. People who understand at the level we write.
If that’s our target audience, that’s fine. But if we’re writing for the majority of the population, unadapted writing is like heating a house with the windows wide open – a lot goes to waste.
Accessible information for everyone
One piece of writing can never suit everyone, but the dual approach to accessible information fails to meet the language needs of the majority of the population.
Writing styles can be flexible, to meet the needs of diverse audiences, but to do this we have to release our dependency on short words and sentences. Shorter words and sentences can make information easier, but they can also make information more difficult to understand, eg. by introducing ambiguity and lowering cohesion.
By adopting an evidence based approach, it is possible to reduce the complexity of all texts, with potential to maximise equality and improve outcomes for everyone.
If you have questions about my research, or you’d like to know more about evidence based language adaptations, please get in touch.