How Plain Language Writing Can Help Your Child Become a Self-Advocate

Have you ever been in a meeting where complicated language is being used, making it hard for you to follow what’s being discussed? (An IEP meeting, perhaps?) Were you left asking yourself, “What just happened?” and feeling like everything went right over your head? That’s likely because the information presented to you wasn’t in Plain Language, or “communication the audience can understand the first time they read or hear it.” As parents, we need to be able to comprehend the information we’re presented with, and students with disabilities should be afforded the same consideration — and this does not mean that the information should be over-simplified, provided at a slower speed, or recited in a tone of voice three octaves lower than usual. Simply put, when people are presented with information at a level they can understand, a great deal can be gained! We spoke with Dr. Caitlin Solone, education advocate, teacher educator, and faculty at UCLA, to learn more.

A young boy and young girl sitting on a porch, each each reading from their own smartphones.
A young boy and young girl sitting on a porch, each each reading from their own smartphones.

When we talk about accessibility, it’s critical to talk just as much about building equal access for people with cognitive disabilities as we talk about building access for people who use wheelchairs, or for those who are Deaf or blind. But as Zoe Gross of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), freelance journalist Sara Luterman, and reporter Andrew Pulrang explain in this Forbes article, “making information accessible to people with cognitive disabilities . . . is an area of accessibility that is surprisingly ignored.” In an interview with Wall Street Journal, Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc, referred to cognitive disability as “the final frontier of accessibility.” One of the best ways to ensure that information and instructions are available to those who may have intellectual, learning, or developmental disabilities is to use Plain Language writing in documents and literature.

The federal government passed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 to require that government agencies provide paperwork and documentation in “clear, concise, well-organized” language. The act aims to make government documents more comprehensible for any person reading them, but the use of Plain Language in communications is especially important for people with intellectual disabilities. As The Center for Plain Language explains, “Wording, structure, and design are so clear [in Plain Language] that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.” That means greater access to written information about healthcare, civil rights, personal finances, and job opportunities — all things that can help your child become the best self-advocate they can be.

What does Plain Language writing look like?

  • Luterman emphasizes that there is no “perfect” way to write in Plain Language: “I tend to describe my Plain Language work as more accessible rather than accessible period — it still might not work for some people.” Different intellectual disabilities affect communication and reading comprehension differently, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach. In WSJ’s reporting on business websites aiming to adapt Plain Language usage, many developers noted the difficulty of trying to create the most useful translation for the most readers.
  • That being said, there are certain recommendations that should always be incorporated. You can see the full list of guidelines from The Center for Plain Language here; they include:
    • Use strong verbs in the active voice (For example, in the Forbes article, Pulrang says to write, “Everyone should wear a mask” instead of “Masks should be worn by everyone.”)
    • Use words the audience knows (Gross suggests using readability score tools geared toward specific grade levels to make sure the vocabulary is accessible — we’ll share some of these tools in a later section!)
    • Include the details that will help the reader complete the task
    • Leave out details that don’t help or may distract readers, even if they are interesting (such as metaphors, similes, or other literary devices)
    • Use headers and subheaders to organize the information
  • It’s also important to note that Plain Language does not mean shorter; it means that ideas are described more thoroughly. Sometimes, Plain Language texts can actually be longer. As Pulrang says, “Plain Language isn’t about reducing the number of facts and ideas expressed, but rather explaining them in ways more people can readily understand.“
  • Gross says ASAN shares different versions of their Policy Advocacy Toolkits with different readability scores (4th–5th grade and 2nd–3rd grade reading levels) to ensure that language is accessible for as many readers as possible. 
  • By sharing documents in Plain Language, ASAN and other organizations provide information so that people with autism, intellectual and/or developmental disabilities, and those whose learning disabilities affect their reading comprehension can advocate for their own civil rights, healthcare access, and more. 

How can Plain Language writing help your child become a better self-advocate?

Understanding the jargon and language used in your child’s IEP helps you to be a better advocate for your child. Likewise, when your child better understands information presented about their IEP, curriculum, and any other matter, then your child can be a better advocate for themselves. When your child can learn to identify their lack of understanding and request content in Plain Language, they begin to exhibit true self-advocacy skills that have the potential to benefit them on an ongoing basis. 
Additionally, when information is provided in Plain Language, it allows individuals to engage in spaces that were previously inaccessible to them, such as a general education classroom. A 9th grade history lesson presented using language at the 9th grade reading level may sound different when presented in Plain Language at the 3rd grade reading level, but the core concepts and scope of the lesson often remain the same. This example can help IEP teams to understand that providing students with accommodations or modifications in Plain Language can be a huge benefit to students.

The following are some of the documents you may consider sharing with your child during conversations about self-advocacy:

Civil rights information written in Plain Language

Healthcare information written in Plain Language

You can find more Plain Language self-advocacy guides here.

If you want to encourage your child’s IEP team, teacher, or instructor to incorporate more Plain Language writing into your child’s assignments and curriculum (or if you want to learn more about writing this way yourself), Gross and Luterman suggest checking out and sharing these online tools:

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