What Using Plain Language Means for Disability Culture

Plain language can be an important tool in sharing disability culture with everyone who needs it.

Image of writer Kelsie Acton beside the book Crip Authorship
Crip Authorship: Disability as Method is a collection of 35 essays that digs into how knowledge about disability is produced and shared and transforms culture. Rewire News Group illustration

Sometimes people in disability culture and activism use big words and complicated ideas. Big words and complicated ideas mean some people can’t be part of disability culture and activism. Plain language is a way to include those people. Plain language is a way of writing or speaking so people understand you the first time they read or hear it. People have been using plain language for a long time in a lot of different places. This means that there are a lot of different ways of using plain language. These include using short sentences, common words, and headings. Critical disability researchers point out that some disabled people don’t communicate in ways that are quick and easy to understand. Sometimes disabled people communicate in ways that have more than one meaning. Maybe plain language can exist with this. Maybe disabled people can make their own way of using plain language. This could make disability culture and activism accessible for more people.

Note on writing: This chapter is written in what I call a semi-plain language style. This means I do the following:

  • Use an active voice.
  • Mostly use the 6,000 most common words in the English language.
  • Use short sentences.
  • Use 14-point font.
  • Use “I” and “you.”

There’s some places in this chapter where I’ve used words that aren’t among the 6,000 most common English words. This is because some words mean very specific things and I want you to read that one meaning. Any other uncommon words I’ve explained in the text.

I hope you find this chapter clear and easy to read.

Histories of plain language

I found that plain language has complicated histories. For the most part, those histories do not include disability. Researchers trace plain language back to many different starting points. Russell Wilterton says people in the fourteenth century cared about clear communication. In 1948, Rudolf Flesch developed the first version of his Reading Ease test. This test scores documents for how long the words and sentences in it are.

Eleanor Cornelius says that in the 1960s and 1970s, people in Australia, Canada, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, India, Singapore, South Africa, Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea, and New Zealand all started to ask for consumer information in plain language. This means information like whether a company will fix something you bought from them if it breaks, what companies will do with information you give them, and whether you can return something that doesn’t work.

Today, plain language is used in a lot of different areas, including government documents, legal writing, technical writing, and medical information. The U.S. government has passed several laws saying the government must communicate clearly. The most recent is the Plain Writing Act of 2020, which requires each federal agency to monitor documents released for plain language and give their employees training and resources in plain language. Plain language is also an important part of legal writing in Canada, the United States, and Australia. Plain language has been adopted as a tool in technical writing. This is because people doing technical writing are starting to think about how their work can help create a more just world. Finally, some medical researchers have started including plain language summaries in their articles. This means medical researchers write a few sentences at the start of the article so people who are not doctors can understand it. The idea that people should communicate clearly has been around for a long time. So there are many different places and fields where plain language is practiced. There are also a lot of different places and fields where people say plain language should be used.

Karen Shriver reviewed over a hundred documents related to the development of plain language in the United States. She found that over the past 70 years, there has been a shift from thinking about how easy the document is to read based on sentences and words, to thinking about the whole document. This includes thinking about how the text is laid out and designed—for example, how big the letters are and the font used. There is now a focus on whether people can use the information in the document and also whether people trust the information.

In the 1960s and 1970s, people thought plain language was mostly for people making decisions about what to buy. Now people who write plain language think of their work as being for a lot of different people. Shriver says people who write plain language started thinking about disabled people using plain language in the 2000s. It’s difficult to trace the history of disabled people using plain language. Lots of disability groups, such as the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and the Green Mountain Self-Advocates, provide plain language information to their members. Alice Wong asked Sara Luterman to make a plain language translation of Disability Visibility. Just because some people writing plain language didn’t think about disabled people needing plain language until the 2000s doesn’t mean that disabled people weren’t using plain language before then.

People who write plain language want people to make good decisions for themselves. This is a value shared by disability rights activists who demand independence and decision making for disabled people. Disabled people need clear, easily available information in order to make decisions too.

How to write plain language

Plain language is used in many different fields and places. So there are a lot of ways to write it. I read five pieces of writing that explain how to use plain language. I chose the “United States Federal Plain Language Guidelines,” the “Plain Language Commission Style Guide” from the United Kingdom, “Five Steps to Plain Language” from the Center for Plain Language in the United States, and the Australian government’s “Style Manual” because people writing about plain language often talk about these pieces of writing. They also come from different places in the English-speaking world. I included Luterman’s foreword to the plain language version of Disability Visibility as an example of using plain language to share disability culture. When I read through all of these guides, I found 72 ways to write plain language. Only 14 of these ways are in two or more guides. The following are the 14 ways to write plain language:

  • Know who you are writing for.
  • Put your information in an order that makes sense.
  • Use headings.
  • Write short sentences.
  • Use the active voice.
  • Use contractions like don’t and couldn’t.
  • Use you for the reader and we for the organization preparing the document.
  • Don’t use unnecessary words.
  • Try not to use abbreviations.
  • Use words to mean what they usually mean.
  • Write short sentences.
  • Write short paragraphs.
  • Use words or phrases that help the reader move between paragraphs.
  • Ask the people you want to use your documents to test them.

All these suggestions are good suggestions. But generally, people don’t agree on how to write plain language. Shriver notes that there is a lot of research that could tell us how to write plain language. But this research is spread over many different areas of study like linguistics, education, and technical writing. People who write plain language need someone to bring together all this research and tell us how to write plain language based on research. Until then, most people won’t entirely agree on how to write plain language.

Critical disability studies, plain language, and communication

No matter how we write plain language, we want clear writing that people understand quickly. This way of writing is very different from the way some critical disability studies researchers have thought about writing and communication. Critical disability studies researchers are often interested in how disability can change the way the world thinks we should speak or write. Critical disability studies researchers like Robert McRuer, Joshua St. Pierre, M. Remi Yergeau, and Margaret Price often write about nondisabled people assuming that everyone should write or speak:

  • clearly
  • quickly
  • in an order that makes sense to a lot of people
  • so there is only one meaning, and
  • efficiently, so that other people don’t have to work to understand.

As I mentioned earlier, the world assumes people should write or speak in these ways because of capitalism. Capitalism teaches us to value speed and efficiency. For example, think of a factory. The factory owner wants to increase the speed of production and to eliminate any pauses in making the product. This is because if the factory can produce more of the product in a shorter time, then the factory can make more money. Capitalism also teaches us that time needs to be linear and there should be a direct movement from past to present to future. This way of thinking about time is everywhere in Western culture. We want to be as efficient and direct as possible. But often disabled people are not efficient or direct.

St. Pierre, Yergeau, and Price all explain how disabled people’s communication can be different from the ways people are generally expected to communicate. These differences between how disabled people communicate and how they’re supposed to communicate can help us imagine how the world could be different. In particular, they help us imagine a world that is not about efficiency and directness. A world without efficiency and directness could be a better world for disabled people.

St. Pierre is a researcher who writes about stuttering and fluency. For him, fluency is a word that is related to the world’s ideas about what is normal. Fluency is about time. Fluency is the smooth movement from the past to the present to the future at a pace that most people feel OK with. People who are fluent don’t look like they’re working hard when they speak. Fluency creates a singular meaning. Disabled people may have a hard time creating fluency. Sometimes disabled people speak at a speed that is not expected by other people. For example, someone who stutters speaks at an uneven pace. Or someone who types to speak will create long pauses in the conversation. Sometimes disabled people have to work really hard to make other people understand them. For St. Pierre, disfluency is a word for the way people who speak with a lot of effort, or who speak at an unexpected speed, or whose words can mean a lot of different things force us to consider different ways of speaking and communicating from our usual, fluent ways. It’s important to note that St. Pierre is talking about speech, but I think what St. Pierre says is often true of writing as well.

Sometimes we value writing that takes time to read or has multiple meanings. But often we are taught to write in ways that will be quick to read and have one clear meaning. McRuer describes the university composition classroom as “intent on the production of order and efficiency.”

Composition class is a class where students learn to write. McRuer means that university writing classes teach people to write in a very specific way that can be quickly and easily read. He also points out that:

Composition theory has not yet recognized (or perhaps has censored the “imagined possibility”) that the demand for certain kinds of finished projects in the writing classroom is congruent with the demand for certain kinds of bodies.

McRuer is saying that disabled people have a hard time producing the kind of writing that the people who write composition theory and teach composition class demand. This is similar to St. Pierre saying that disabled people have a hard time speaking in the ways the world expects them to. In both cases the world expects people to write and speak in ways that are easy and quick to understand.

If the way you communicate has multiple meanings or is confusing, then people will say you don’t make sense. Price also writes about teaching writing to university students. She points out that one of the ways the world recognizes people as people is to ask if they make sense. Making sense can mean communicating only one meaning. It can mean communicating with only the right amount of emotion. If a writing student doesn’t make sense, then writing teachers might decide the student is disabled. But deciding a student is disabled doesn’t mean that the teacher will make their classroom more accessible or try to help the student. Instead, the teacher might create more barriers. This is because if people don’t make sense, the world is unkind to them.

Disability could change the world because it forces us to question our focus on speed and efficiency. I also kept thinking about the ways I had seen disability culture and disability activism be unfriendly to many disabled people because of the ways we ask people to read. If there is one thing I have learned from disability culture, it is that there is never one right way of being, doing, or communicating. Usually the best way to make things accessible is to have lots of different ways of communicating.

I think plain language documents should exist alongside complex text, much the same way we might make sound recordings of writing, caption videos, or have important information translated into our local sign language. Critical disability scholars need to think about how we write and who we write for. Is complex language the only way we can imagine new ways of thinking and being? Who do we exclude from new thinking about disability when we use big words and complicated sentences? I can be excited about the ways disabled people communicate that make me work to understand. And I can understand that for other people that can be a barrier. I don’t want disability culture and activism to only be for some people; I want everyone to be welcome.

Plain language shouldn’t just be for making decisions about what to buy, what medical treatment you should have, or who to vote for. Those are important. But so are the ideas coming from disability culture. Everyone should be able to read writing that is about how incredible disabled people are. Everyone should be able to see or listen to art about the ways disabled people care for each other. Writing that celebrates and loves disabled people can make people much happier. It can be life-saving.

Plain language can be an important tool in sharing disability culture with everyone who needs it. Involving people who need plain language to understand disability culture and new ways of thinking about disability could help me, and other people, find a version of plain language that is for disability culture.