Cognitively Accessible Language (Why We Should Care)

November 22, 2013
By

By Elizabeth Grace

If you use plain language to describe and discuss even complex theories, more people will be able to read your writing. Not everyone will believe this is a good thing. There are historical reasons for this, and some of these reasons are compelling in the lives of people living and working in today’s economy.

In terms of access and justice, using plain language is very important. It’s needed to allow the widest variety of people with disabilities to participate in conversations about themselves. We cannot allow certain disabilities to stand in for others. Neurodivergent people (those of us whose brains are wired differently), for example, have different access needs from one another and from people whose access needs are orthopedic or purely sensory.  First we must understand some more about some of the potential barriers if we are to make progress solving these access barriers.

In the academic job market, it is very difficult to get published when you write in a tone of voice, or what writing teachers call “register,” that most folks can pick up,  read, and easily understand. One reason for this difficulty is the custom of “double-blind peer reviews” in which the names are taken off papers and you are not told who reviews your work.

At first, as a disabled person, I might say “double-blind” is offensive to blind people, and the way it is meant, it would be. It is trying to say that blind people don’t know what is going on, just like the reviewer and the writer don’t know what’s going on. In reality, the analogy is accidentally true. Blind people really do know what’s going on by other means than sight, and reviewers and writers in academic situations also know what’s going on by other means than knowing each other’s names.

What happens is that in-group languages, jargons, and other forms of writing that block out a lot of people from being able to read texts written by academic specialists also serve to mark the writers as belonging to special subgroups or schools of thought. These language differences are a quick way of showing the reader that the writer is a legitimate member of the system. Not only that, but an experienced reviewer can pinpoint almost exactly who the writer is, if not precisely who, by looking first at the language and then at the other writers cited and the topic of the paper combined with the language information.

When the reviewers send notes back to the original writers, the writers can tell fairly easily  who reviewed their papers, if they want to, based on the commentaries, which will be written in a similar or adjacent form of jargon, and might say certain experts or methods needed to have been included or so forth, which tips you off to their subgroups. Then you can look them up on a list within the journal’s information and easily find out exactly which person they are based on their interests.

Writing in plain language makes all of this nearly impossible and marks you as an outsider. That’s part of why we do not see it happen more often in certain fields of academic activity. People are afraid they will not get published at all.

However, this is a giant access problem, especially if the field in question is a field relating to social justice in any way, and most especially if the field is Disability Studies, or even feminism talking about disabled people. It’s a giant access issue any time disabled people are being talked about.

People with the disabilities called intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, and the like, some people with  experiences causing them to identify as psychiatric survivors, even people with types of physical or chronic issues which cause fatigue—all of these people may  benefit from not having to wade through walls of jargon in order to read about themselves.  They would also benefit from not being expected to learn how to write in these ways in order for their voices to be heard.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Writing academic scholarship in ways that allow more people to gain access to it is also beneficial when we are talking about economic justice. It is useful in cases of English as a second language, and it is useful when we are talking about people who are brilliant thinkers and organizers but for whatever reason (frequently economic) have not had the time (or money) to learn the language systems of academic jargon.

So in terms of disability, there is the saying: “Nothing About Us Without Us.” When we write about other people, especially in language they have no chance of picking up and reading, let alone writing in themselves and seeing their own voices in print, we are perpetuating a gross injustice.

In terms of economics and classism, as well as other forms of access barriers, similar problems arise. From a feminist standpoint, I think it is quite clear that we would want more people to have access to the tools and social capital that would enable the movement to go forward. We want people to be included rather than locked out.

We as academics and even some quasi-academics in the publishing world know how the systems of jargon and in-group language work. I think it’s time to take a stand against that sort of thing now. The more we rise up against it together, the more chance we have of creating a critical mass of solidarity that allows more people to write in their natural voices, enabling more and more people access to the keys to the tower. We won’t even be the first to have the idea: Randall Munroe may have been speaking about higher math when he suggested simpler language would be helpful in academia, but it applies even more when we’re talking about real people whose lives can be affected by what’s written about them. It is risky to be among the first to actually implement a good idea, but feminism has a tradition of taking on righteous risk.

We can create a world of ideas in which all of the people are free to participate, without having to gain a level of privilege and status first, without having to give up part of their identities and take on others. Want to be read? Be readable!

___________________________________

DisabilityAutistic scholar and activist Elizabeth J. (Ibby) Grace holds a position as Assistant Professor of Education at National Louis University. She blogs at tinygracenotes.blogspot.com and NeuroQueer.blogspot.com, and her writing can also be found among other places at Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism and in a chapter on her own schooling for the newly published book Both Sides of the Table: Autoethnographies of Educators Learning and Teaching With/In [Dis]ability, edited by Phil Smith and available at Amazon. She lives in the suburbs of Chicago with her lovely wife and two magnificent sons going on 2, where she serves on the board of directors for the youth group Special Gifts Theatre.

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32 Responses to Cognitively Accessible Language (Why We Should Care)

  1. Ed on November 22, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    I haven’t found educated people needing to obtain more accessible speaking and writing skills that will provide others an opportunity to understand more so much as they need better listening skills along with the willingness to accept that we, who are uneducated, offer something valuable for others to learn. People often don’t need to be offered more as much as they need to be reminded that they have something to offer.

    • Ib Grace on November 22, 2013 at 6:23 pm

      Excellent point!

  2. Kim J on November 22, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    Some might even argue that this use of “proper” English and/or field-specific jargon is an intentional strategy to keep certain people oppressed. The tools of oppression have been made to look like well-established “rules” that we’ve been socialized to accept without challenge. This system has been created so that oppression doesn’t look like people blatantly being elitist jerks. Unfortunately we have to convince people of the utility of plain or lay language (as you noted in the first paragraph) and breaking down the system of elitism. [Recognizing that not all of my language here is as plain as it could be...I have been socialized by academia.]

    Thanks for a great article!

    • Ib Grace on November 22, 2013 at 6:30 pm

      Me too! I wrote some jargon in here that sounded usual to me since I hear it so frequently and my friend had to edit it out! :) Thanks for writing!

      • Alyssa Z on November 22, 2013 at 10:19 pm

        I can vouch for Ib’s honesty there. And I can admit that I do the same thing with some of the jargon I actually know.

  3. Justin on November 22, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    The XKCD comic which you linked is ironic. Randall Munroe is pointing out that it would be disastrous to talk about particle physics without using technical language. Yes, the simple language gives you the gist, but there comes a point when you need to be more precise. The same can be said for disability or class (and, I’m sure, race or gender).

    Mainly, I take issue with your claim that plain language is the only way to communicate with the people about whom these scholars write. I have a neurodevelopmental disorder myself but since I haven’t read much in the field of disability studies, and the range of disability is so wide, I will withhold comment on the validity of your claims there.

    I come from an extremely impoverished background. I have and continue to read widely in social justice, and have never felt that the language used was exclusionary. Quite the opposite: I came to understand my history and context because of (not in spite of) the complexity of the ideas presented by scholars and social theorists.

    To me, your advocacy for an exclusively “plain” language neuters a whole line of conversation and forecloses on ideas of high complexity. Complexity develops for reasons other than in-group identification or social competition. Complexity develops because the world is complex.

    To foreclose on technical language is in fact to deny that an area of inquiry is complex, to over-simplify, and to constrain discussion to an artificial (and capricious) boundary of “accessibility.” To borrow a metaphor from computing: you can certainly compress an image, but you will lose detail. In social justice, as it turns out, these details are often critical.

    Rather than imposing rules on other authors to constrain their speech or methods of communication, you might consider providing glosses for texts if you deem them inaccessible.

    Rather than imposing rules on other writers to constrain their speech or methods of communication, if you have such a problem with this way of writing, you might consider providing glosses for inaccessible texts. You might start with articles written by neuroscientists. Or you might start with the title of the book in your bio, “Both Sides of the Table: Autoethnographies of Educators Learning and Teaching With/In [Dis]ability.”

    Whatever you do, don’t paint us–people with disabilities, poor people–with one brush. Don’t assume our capacities for us, don’t assume that we need or want simplification. We’re not children or idiots.

    Don’t pretend you are serving us or saving us when you speak for us.

    • Alex Lubet on November 22, 2013 at 7:02 pm

      At the risk of being harsh, Justin, your use of “idiots” is a giveaway that you’ve not read much of disability studies. If you don’t think it’s advantageous, necessary, or possible to express complex ideas in plain language, why are you using it here? With regard to scientific writing, as some scientists who are critics of what you call “complex ideas” and they call “bad writing,” science sometimes uses terms that are unfamiliar to people who are not in their respective fields, but there is rarely or never obfuscation by syntax. Having been in sessions with people who have little or nothing original to say (and don’t realize it) and who say it in slavish imitation of the styles of their favorite cultural studies types, I’ve often asked them to clarify and simplify and have yet to meet anyone who, pressed, couldn’t do so. If such language were as effective as you say, people would speak that way, and they don’t.

      Alex Lubet, Ph. D.
      Morse-Alumni/Graduate & Professional Distinguished Teaching Professor
      Music/American Studies/Jewish Studies/Cognitive Sciences
      Head, Interdisciplinary Graduate Group in Disability Studies
      University of Minnesota

      • Justin on November 23, 2013 at 1:47 am

        Alex, let’s break this down, then.

        1.) I used “idiots” requesting that the author not treat us as people labeled “idiots” were once treated. I’m fully aware of the historic import of the term. If you reread my post, my sense will be clear.

        2.) The complexity of science writing extends beyond a litany of terms. Again, you’re misrepresenting what I’ve said. I’ve suggested that the author might better apply her suggestions to scientists talking about neurology, for instance, the neurology of disabled people.

        3.) I didn’t know we were limiting our discussion to “obfuscation by syntax.” I would claim that the syntax you dislike so much in fact serves an important communicative purpose. Writing is always an art, and a lot of writing in social theory shares a common kinship with creative forms like poetry–the two are only recently separated.

        4.) It’s always possible to “simplify,” something I address in the fifth paragraph of my first post. One could simplify Foucault’s writing, for instance, by saying “institutions are oppressive.” But such a simplification cuts away important parts of an idea, and if someone walks away thinking that’s all Foucault has to say, they will have grossly misunderstood his project.

        5.) Speaking and writing are different. I specifically provide space for both ways of communication. But if black and white is the order of the day…

        6.) Finally, I can’t help but notice the exhaustive, five line signature at the bottom of your blog comment. What purpose does this serve? Is it intended to preempt disagreement? To constitute yourself as an authority on all subjects academic? To establish your dominance over me, an anonymous commentator with no (stated) credentials?

        Here’s where you disagree and say that this is simply how you sign your posts. Here’s where everyone else realizes how transparent your excuse is. Here’s where I imply that there is a more insidious elitism in academia, one that extends beyond syntax: professional hierarchy.

    • aebhel on November 22, 2013 at 8:09 pm

      I think there’s a difference between using technical language to descripe technical concepts (in some fields, at a certain level, you actually cannot explain things in terms that a layperson could understand without neutering the discussion) and using it to obscure simple concepts.

      • Ib Grace on November 23, 2013 at 9:03 am

        Truth. Big difference. I’m glad you pointed that out. There is also using jargon to needlessly obscure complex concepts, and that is what I’m talking about here. Disability justice is complex and subtle, and good writers can write about it in ways that do not resemble any kind of gatekeeping, because it is not in the same category of topics as for example analog chip design. When chip designers write to each other with precision, they lock nobody out. They are doing a different category of action. Inaccessible language about disability studies is not more precise and does not do the work of technical language.

    • Alyssa Z on November 22, 2013 at 10:19 pm

      She’s citing the mouseover text. Did you read the mouseover text?

    • Ib Grace on November 23, 2013 at 4:55 am

      Dear Justin, Many academics are good writers and already put very complex, brilliant new thought into gorgeous prose. (Hi there my friends!) To clarify, I am the person who wrote this piece, not as skilled as my friends in rhetoric who do this, but in admiration of them. My reply to you is below, because I did not put it in the right place before. I think you are making incorrect presumptions about Alex’s reasons for making his job title transparent, just like you made incorrect presumptions about my project. I do not know why you seem so angry (I get this from your use of inflammatory language and jumping to say it am imposing rules when there is no evidence of rule making in the essay) about the idea of making things available to more people. It is not as if anyone is trying to take away what you’ve got. Social justice is not a zero sum game.

      • Justin on November 23, 2013 at 1:17 pm

        Thanks for your responses. I don’t have any desire to attack the way that you speak or write, and I’m sincerely sorry to hear that you’ve been discouraged from using plain language–I hope you can see I’m not arguing against that kind of writing.

        I’m not in academia myself, though I work with academics. So I don’t have any criticism of the first part of your article dealing with double-blind peer review and the ease of identifying writers and reviewers (for what it’s worth–this happens in every field, from what I’ve heard).

        I’m truly sorry to hear that it is difficult to be published using plain language. I agree that there is room for every kind of writing. I think we’re both on the same side, so far.

        Here are the two quotes from your article that bothered me an awful lot:

        “People with the disabilities called intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities, learning disabilities [...] may benefit from not having to wade through walls of jargon in order to read about themselves. They would also benefit from not being expected to learn how to write in these ways in order for their voices to be heard.”

        “[reducing jargon] is also beneficial when we are talking about economic justice [...] and it is useful when we are talking about people who are brilliant thinkers and organizers but for whatever reason (frequently economic) have not had the time (or money) to learn the language systems of academic jargon.”

        In these two quotes it definitely sounds like you’re trying to constrain the way that people write. It looks like you’re establishing a normative standard that jargon is bad because it reduces a work’s accessibility.

        As a poor person with a disability who has learned to read and write in this way, I take offense to the suggestion. I would argue that the fear of jargon, syntax, or oblique language is totally out of proportion to the difficulty of actually reading these works.

        But maybe you meant something different than what I got. I guess the key disagreement here is that you think this kind of writing “needlessly obscures complex concepts,” while I think it can elucidate complex concepts in ways that plain writing can’t (but then again, I write poetry).

  4. Ib Grace on November 22, 2013 at 6:40 pm

    The comic is a joke. In real life, very complex ideas, when you grasp them solidly, can be discussed in an endless variety of ways without loss of complexity. I am not a painter painting people. I am an Autistic scholar who got tired of people telling me I would not be taken seriously if I wrote or spoke too plainly or inclusively, and decided to speak truth to power about the processes of in-group peer review. I am inviting others to stand in solidarity with me, not saving you or speaking for you, or pretending anything at all. I am sorry my writing did not make all this clear to you.

  5. Katrina Moody on November 23, 2013 at 10:57 am

    I understand the point, even understand the desire to mitigate the possibility that you are excluding someone by using more complex theories, ideas, and thoughts … but I have to wonder why we should assume that “cognitively accessible” language is necessary simply because someone has a diagnosis of any kind. I’ve met teens and adults who would have been diagnosed cognitively delayed who could converse, read, and indeed thrive without needing language/words simplified for them.

    If, on the other hand, we’re talking about the over-use of jargon and “in” language of academia, then I think the idea is also ludicrous that you would equate good writing (clear, concise) with needing to dumb down the language for folks who might have a given diagnosis.

    • Ib Grace on November 23, 2013 at 12:48 pm

      You do not at all seem to understand the point. “Dumbing down” offends me, and is the opposite of what I ask. I state that complex ideas can be expressed without the use of needlessly lumpen language and should be for a wide world of additional reasons having nothing to do with diagnostics. What I am learning is that trying your hardest to be clear is a good idea only in cases where people care to stop and listen to what you are saying, which goes back to Ed’s original comment.

  6. LucyMB on November 23, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    Yes! I’ve been saying this forever but less eloquently than you. I’ve no patience for academics who go on about the democratization of learning writing in language that is needlessly and pretentiously opaque.

  7. Ed on November 23, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    I think I understand better after the comments, although I could be mistaken. I read this article differently than some others. The way I understood it; it’s very helpful.

    An academic may interpret accessibility to suggest that they, whom they presume knows more and is best qualified to make decisions for others, should include those who are less that way by speaking in an inferior way as they do. Some of us aren’t convinced of this superiority, or that the authority is being well utilized. The way I understand it, if you begin including people who haven’t been, using whatever method, another conclusion as to what is best is discovered by the process. What was previously considered knowledge becomes obsolete.

    Discouraging the most descriptive language available to make a point and using the best grammatical rules isn’t necessary, and I’m not reading where that’s suggested. People aren’t simply being denied access due to having inadequate ability to understand what’s important and certainly everyone can contribute something valuable. Some people in positions which could be supportive are just instead excluding them in traditionally approved ways, and that needs to be challenged.

  8. Dave on November 23, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    Maybe I miss something here, but are we answering a question that hasn’t been asked? For example, maybe it’s presumptuous to assume how someone with (insert cognitive disability) hasn’t written at a highly-academic level. Perhaps it’s unfair to ignore the blogging trend- people who use current technology and write at several levels, regardless of their cognitive abilities.

    Consider the audiences, and write to them. An impassioned letter is as likely to attract my attention as well as current research from a major university scholar. If content is not interesting to me, using several criteria OTHER than how well a person writes, then I don’t care who wrote it. Honestly, you can’t get me to read “50 Shades of Grey,” despite its pop-culture success. I love reading Hemingway, though, despite his less-than-stellar use of grammar. Hey, look- Hemingway won some literary awards, but I bet his English teacher would have flunked him for the above-mentioned grammar (ab)use and his sometimes irritatingly long, strung-together sentences that are not unlike the length of this sentence I am writing to you now to prove my point.

    Is this article a slam against people who write well? Are you asking for people to dumb-down language and forego academic scholarship to fit, maybe some benchmark that you have magically discovered and haven’t shared? If your wish is granted, what do you want to see from this article’s intended purpose?

    • Ed on November 24, 2013 at 12:54 pm

      Most people don’t have Internet access. How those who do and are blogging are received is heavily influenced by academic standards. Few people will adopt a unique standard that validates who they are in a way that is contrary to popular opinion. The few who are involved in academia would do well to evaluate the way they are encouraging exclusion.

      Many don’t have access to the explanation of what influential readers are looking for in a letter that they would be influenced by. Popular writers don’t just sell their work; they must also be someone whom the publisher can market. Again, the cultural standards for popularity determine who has advantages.

      The advantages are less likely to appear to be exclusively provided to those who are provided them. The writer of this article hasn’t “magically discovered” a benchmark that isn’t clearly pointed out nor has she neglected to explain the article’s intended purpose.

      Those who are determining who is fit to be a scholar and who is “dumb” are also discouraging participation from those who would challenge what they declare as fact and what mainly benefits them. Besides the way that this is morally wrong; it’s impractical as well as counter-productive.

      • Dave on November 24, 2013 at 1:26 pm

        If writing is a matter of haves vs have-nots, and FREE Internet is provided by many public schools with government programs available for free internet AND computers, then let’s simply agree to disagree. Instead, based on the presumptions of being able to read and write at higher levels, let’s focus on world-wide literacy. Statistically, a majority of people cannot read, even at a basic level. If we want change, perhaps we can focus on this glaring oversight?

        • Ed on November 24, 2013 at 2:01 pm

          Access and inclusion don’t only provide more people with opportunities; it alters what those opportunities are.

          • Dave on November 24, 2013 at 2:10 pm

            Regarding what the opportunities are, consider what COMMON CORE will do for reading and writing, as well as imagination and independence. Am glad this progressive standardization for writing met rigorous testings by various unbiased parties for education BEFORE it was installed into public school systems nationwide. Oh, wait…it didn’t.

  9. Dendritic Trees on November 23, 2013 at 10:34 pm

    I will second (or fifth or whatever we’re on) the idea that when having a high level discussion jargon makes the complex ideas discussed in a lot of academia more, not less clear, by adding a level of detail which is simply not available using more simple grammar.

    I am with you 100% on the subject of academic grammar and general writing. A lot of it is terrible and opaque. Some of this is, as you suggest, probably gate keeping. But based on my experience, I would say that a lot of it is also simple lack of skill. Your average STEM academic has at most a handful of undergraduate level writing courses, and those are probably general English. Specialist training in academic writing specifically is rare. In a lot of cases the very obscure language and grammar you are taking issue with arises simply because researchers, who aren’t trained as writers, simply never acquired a level of writing skill to match their ideas and scientific ability. Simplifying this writing without losing detail and still retaining all the information is a good and important idea, but it is incredibly difficult. Many of the impenetrable papers you’ve complained about are probably actually as clear as their author is able to make them.

    Unless there is some training for this, there isnt’ really any way around it, but academics who are already expected to do writing, teaching, administration and knowledge translation, in addition to the research they are trained and paid for, really don’t need another training burden, so adding additional pressure, however well intentioned, is unlikely to help anyone. If anything, it may result in academic careers becoming less accessible to people who are less skilled with language, as universities pressure their professors to use language better.

    • Dave on November 23, 2013 at 11:36 pm

      @Dendritic Trees:
      This is a great interpretation and helps me understand the OT. I agree that more responsibility is needed to improve writing, but NOT just at the high-levels of academia. I support a give-and-take about writing: PhD/Researchers need to speak WITH the common reader; schools need to press better reading and writing skills. Somewhere, better understanding may be had by meeting in the middle. Thanks, Dendritic Trees!

  10. […] Elizabeth Grace, Cognitively Accessible Languate, Why We Should Care. The Feminist Wire, Nov. 2013. http://thefeministwire.com/2013/11/cognitively-accessible-language-why-we-should-care/ […]

  11. […] Elizabeth Grace, Cognitively Accessible Languate, Why We Should Care. The Feminist Wire, Nov. 2013. http://thefeministwire.com/2013/11/cognitively-accessible-language-why-we-should-care/ […]

  12. […] Cognitively Accessible Language (Why We Should Care) By Elizabeth Grace […]

  13. […] article “Cognitively Accessible Language (Why We Should Care)” (2013, November 22, found at http://www.thefeministwire.com/2013/11/cognitively-accessible-language-why-we-should-care). Grace argues that language ought to be accessible to people with a variety of disabilities […]

  14. Naomi Ortiz on December 6, 2013 at 7:00 pm

    Thank you so much for writing this piece. Clear language is about access and as you point out, if we want a community of folks who can connect to each other and have power, then we need consistent access. Doing anti-ableism work means moving from “making exceptions” to sticking together and starting from a place of access all of the time.

  15. […] article Cognitively Accessible Language (Why We Should Care)” (2013, November 22, found at http://www.thefeministwire.com/2013/11/cognitively-accessible-language-why-we-should-care).   Now, the decision to write in a certain kind of language may not occur to some as having a […]

  16. […] Cognitively Accessible Language (Why We Should Care) […]

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