Businesses looking to improve safety and accessibility can learn a lot from the U.S. Navy. While writing accommodating language and equipping combat-ready forces are very different tasks, both can be guided by a simple principle — KISS. The KISS principle – an acronym for “keep it simple, stupid” – is celebrated in fields ranging from software engineering to political science. Aircraft engineer Kelly Johnson coined the phrase in the 1960s to guide designers at Lockheed Skunk Works, the firm responsible for the SR-71 Blackbird Sky Plane and other groundbreaking aerospace developments. The idea was that anything used in high-stress combat scenarios needed to be simple to understand and operate. This concept carries over well to everyday life where many people are distracted, busy, and overwhelmed. For a concept or product to help people, it should be simple and easy to understand. Communication is no different. While many writers seek to showcase their expertise with complex jargon, they’re doing a disservice to their audience and themselves. In fact, language is a matter of accessibility. Accessible language is simple and easy to understand. Utilizing accessible language can help businesses be more inclusive, gain and maintain customers, and avoid problems such as premises liability lawsuits. Read on to learn about effective language for accessibility.
General Accessibility Issues
Accessible language accommodates people of all abilities and ages. This includes peoples with disabilities, people with literacy limitations, the very young and the elderly, and people who speak English as a foreign language. It means using plain language that is clear, consistent, and easy to comprehend. Accessible language should also represent the preferences of the groups to which it refers and be free of negative attitudes and biases. Language that is inaccessible can be overly complex, obscure, poorly worded, or exclusive to certain groups. This can mean using unfamiliar words and phrases, including industry-specific jargon, or using language that is disparaging or patronizing. Language can also be inaccessible when sentences are passive, information is out of order, or there are unmarked language changes. When language is inaccessible, problems can occur. These include:
Limited Access to Information
If a business uses inaccessible language, people might struggle to understand or translate the meaning. This is a common issue with product information, user experience, sales disclaimers, and legalese. This can also present problems for businesses looking to obtain new customers who struggle to understand its products or call-to-action.
Suppressed Civic and Public Engagement
Inaccessible language can limit participation in democracy. This can happen if there are language barriers or when instructions and information are hard to understand. This makes it difficult for citizens to use public services, communicate with representatives, and engage in the political process. Unclear laws or other policies can even be grounds for a lawsuit against government agencies.
Decreased Economic Opportunity
Inaccessible language creates economic barriers. Not only can it make it harder for certain groups to find employment, it also hurts businesses by limiting their talent pool.
Furthering Biases and Marginalization
Certain words and phrases can (intentionally or unintentionally) reflect and reinforce biases and negative attitudes towards groups of people. This is especially harmful for people with disabilities and other marginalized populations. It’s important that businesses use language that is respectful and reflects the preferences of these groups (see the guides linked in ‘Groups That Benefit From Accessible Language’ below).
Health and Safety Issues
When it comes to people’s health and safety, language should be clear and concise. A lack of accessible language can present problems for individuals, businesses, healthcare providers, and government agencies. This is a common issue in both public and private sectors.
Accessible Language and Business Liability
Businesses are often held liable for adverse effects of their products and for accidents on their property. For example, if they do not provide accessible safety signage, they could have a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit brought against them. In many defective product and product liability lawsuits, the judge will review if the defendant (the business) took reasonable care to prevent injuries and complications. This includes using clear, accessible language to inform of potential risks.
Accessible Language in Healthcare and Medicine
In healthcare settings, clear and jargon-free communication is essential so that all patients can understand their diagnosis and treatment plans. Miscommunication and misunderstandings can lead to real harm to patients, as well as lawsuits for misdiagnosis or other forms of malpractice. Healthcare agencies and providers must use accessible language to avoid these problems.
Accessible Language and Public Health and Safety
Accessible language is crucial for local, state, and federal government agencies. Unclear laws or other policies can make it difficult for citizens to stay safe and take care of themselves and their community. This is especially important when communicating information during events such as natural disasters and pandemics. Unclear language and guidelines can even be grounds for a lawsuit against government agencies for failure to accommodate all citizens.
Accessible Language is Good For Business
Research shows that using accessible language is a great business tool. It’s inclusive, more accommodating, and it makes it easier to convey information. Topics and materials that are easy to understand are more likely to engage subjects and convert them into customers. According to studies on the effectiveness of plain language, clear communication offers several distinct benefits for businesses and consumers. Accessible language is easier to read, increases retention, provides greater comprehension, and creates preference towards the organization. Plain language can also improve web pages’search engine optimization (SEO) on Google. It’s simple — when writing is clear and concise, users are more likely to engage with the information. This means more leads and more customers.
How to Use Plain Language Effectively
Plain language is effective language. When language is clear and concise, it’s easier for users to engage with the content. Harvard University Digital Accessibility provides the following guidelines for using plain language effectively:
Present Information in Logical Order
Important details and information should come first.
Use Active Voice
Use a clear subject in your writing who performs the action. For example, “The man wrote the paper.” instead of “The paper was written by the man.”
Use Familiar Language
Use language and vocabulary that your audience will understand. Provide definitions for any abbreviations and unusual or complex terms.
Mark Language Changes
Make it clear if text is changing from one language to another. This is especially important for people who are using screen readers and other assistive technologies.
Usability testing helps determine whether language is accessible. In a usability test, members of the target audience review the content and provide feedback to the producer. This helps gauge if the content is user-friendly, easy to understand, and meaningful. Many organizations provide web content accessibility guidelines and other usability testing tools.
Groups That Benefit From Accessible Language
Accessible language is a matter of communication and accommodation. It benefits a wide range of people including those with cognitive disabilities, people with literacy limitations, the very young and the elderly, and people who speak English as a foreign language. Businesses who provide accessible language are more inclusive and can reach a wider audience.
People With Cognitive Disabilities
Accessible language accommodates people with cognitive disabilities. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data on disabilities, nearly 11 percent of Americans have a cognitive disability. This can make it difficult to concentrate, remember, and process complex language. Accessible language also means using proper etiquette when writing about people with disabilities to avoid terms that are considered out-of-date or disparaging (such as the term ‘disabled persons’). Devising accessible content also creates greater accessibility for people who are deaf, have visual impairments, learning disabilities, or other physical sensory impairments.
People With Literacy Limitations
Some people have limited literacy. In fact, the Organization for Economic Cooperation found that 50 percent of U.S. adults cannot read at an eighth-grade level. This makes it crucial that information relating to public services, health, and safety be written in a manner that is simple and concise. Businesses that utilize simple language in their writing and marketing materials can better accommodate more customers.
The Very Young and the Elderly
Young children who haven’t developed their reading skills and older adults who are losing reading abilities still need to be able to understand cautionary and instructional signs. An elderly person who cannot read cautionary signage may experience a slip and fall injury or other accident. This is why many signs utilize colors, symbols, and simple language. Businesses should take care to ensure that precautionary language and signage are in site and easy to understand.
Foreign Language Speakers
Many people in the United States do not speak English as their first language. People who speak English as a foreign language are more likely to engage with content they can understand. Plain, accessible language is easier to comprehend, and it is easier to translate. This is an important consideration for business as the United States becomes increasingly diverse and multilingual.
Accessible Language as an Advantage
Organizations should be aware of accessibility issues of jargon and complex language. While obscure writing might seem impressive, it creates barriers to readership and understanding. On the other hand, accessible language is more inclusive and better for business. It’s easier to comprehend, reduces liability, and retains readership. This makes content more inclusive to people of all ages and abilities, and it makes it easier for the writer to convey his or her ideas. When in doubt, remember the U.S. Navy’s KISS principle: “keep it simple, stupid.”