Easy read

Category: GlosLINkGloucestershire LINk‘s website has some ‘easy read’ documents. I wondered what the format of them is, exactly, and so I did a little research. My research revealed some murky depths to what seemed like a simple idea.

The term EasyRead is registered by Accessible Publishing Systems Pty. Ltd. in Sydney, Australia. Its subsidiary, ReadHowYouWant, specializes in formatting printed materials and other media to make them easier to use by people with specific cognitive impairments. ReadHowYouWant operates in the UK, but it seems to keep a low profile here. Few ‘easy read’ documents in the UK are produced by ReadHowYouWant.

If you want to see how these professionals do things, though, just have a look at their range of print formats: Print formats

For example, one of the formats they are working on helps people who have difficulty tracking words. It changes the word shapes to make this specific task easier. But people who have this specific disability do not usually have any intellectual impairment. They can understand complex sentences like this one:

ReadHowYouWant understand that helping people who have difficulty reading involves assessing each individual’s specific difficulties and finding ways to overcome them. For example, not all their print formats are large print, because some people with cognitive impairments have perfectly good vision. Other formats help with specific reading problems, like character discrimination or word sequence.

In Europe and the UK, however, the term ‘easy read’ is generally used more loosely to describe a variety of large print formats. Large print is just about all they have in common. There are several different sets of rules about what constitutes ‘easy read’.

Pictures

Many ‘easy read’ formats use pictures, even though a research study carried out in Kent in 2007 found that pictures did not help: Accessible information for people with intellectual disabilities: do symbols really help?

Thirty-four adults with intellectual disabilities, attending three day centres in Kent, participated in the study, and the researchers, Angela Poncelas and Glynis Murphy, concluded:

The group with symbols (and text) showed no better understanding than the group with text only…This study suggests that the addition of symbols to simple texts does not necessarily improve people’s understanding of it.

At Mencap, for example, the easy read documents have pictures that are mostly either meaningless, or illustrate something that is not the main point of the text. Here’s an example from Mencap’s 2008 manifesto, Making rights a reality:

Here’s another example, this time from the Department of Health’s 2007 report, Valuing people and research. The important word in the sentence is “plan”, but the picture illustrates the easy word “money”, making the information as a whole harder to understand:

The 21-word sentence also breaks the Department of Health’s later guidance:

Each sentence to be as short as possible. More than 15 words is harder to read.

Fonts

Easy read texts almost always use sans-serif fonts like Arial or Helvetica, even though there is no evidence that they are easier to read. Indeed, there is some evidence that they make text harder to understand.

Young children who are learning to write may benefit from reading material that uses large consistent letter shapes, but experienced readers tend to read word shapes, not letter shapes. Typographers point out that in serif fonts like Times, the serifs help to connect individual letters into words, and that’s why books and newspapers are generally set in serif fonts.

For example, one cognitive impairment that some people have causes confusion between letter shapes that are mirror images, like b and d. Here they are set in Arial:

But when they are set in a serif font, they are no longer mirror images. The serif font is easier to read because it contains these extra cues. Here are the same letters set in Times:

The fashion for sans-serif fonts in easy read materials might only based on the crazy notion that cognitively impaired people should be treated like little children.

If you look carefully at the example from Mencap, above, you can see that they use a hybrid font that has a few of the more important serifs. That font, FSMencap, was designed specially for Mencap.

Office for Disability Issues

It appears that some UK guidance used to be at the website http://easyinfo.org.uk, which is now suspended, although references to it still appear elsewhere.

Some easy read standards for the UK are outlined briefly by the Office for Disability Issues (ODI), part of the Department for Work and Pensions. Its guide to Easy Read emphasizes that easy read is not the same as clear English, and it gives this example:

Clear English Thank you for your letter asking for permission to put up posters in the library. Before we can give you an answer we will need to see a copy of the posters to make sure they won’t offend anyone.”
Easy Read Thank you for your letter about your poster. We need to see the poster before we put it up. This is because it must not offend anyone. Offend means upset people.”

Unfortunately, the example contains errors. The original referred to more than one poster, it mentioned a library, and it asked to see a copy (not the actual posters). Anyone using the easy read version has to work those things out for themselves, and is likely to be distracted by the word “offend” highlighted twice in bold. The ‘easy read’ version is therefore harder to understand, because it conceals important information and emphasizes unimportant information.

If the word ‘offend” is really difficult to understand, and ‘upset’ is easier, why not simply use the word ‘upset’ in the first place? Easy read versions are full of this kind of condescending thoughtlessness.

(The meaningless quotation marks at the end of each example are in the original.)

Department of Health

The Department of Health (DoH) published its own easy read standards in December 2010: Guidelines for producing Easy Read

These guidelines are not the same as the ODI’s standards. For example, they emphasize the use of pictures (which the ODI puts last in its list), and they require difficult words to be highlighted in bold and explained in a box (whereas the ODI wants difficult words explained in the next sentence and also in a glossary at the end).

There are many rules about grammar and punctuation. I particularly like (page 28):

  • Do not use contractions and avoid apostrophes, except where they indicate possession.

First, it’s ambiguous. Does it mean “…and do not avoid apostrophes…”? Compare: “Do not use the bypass and avoid the town centre.” And second, just five lines above that rule there is a contraction with an apostrophe:

… it’s fine to end a sentence with a preposition…

(Actually, it’s always fine. No one needs the Department of Health to rule on it.)

I hardly need add that there is no research evidence cited for any of the rules.

European standards

A 2009 document, Information for all, by Inclusion Europe, funded by the European Commission, describes different standards again.

Its recommended style has few pictures and many bulleted lists. Its characterstic feature is that every sentence begins on a new line, and long sentences are sometimes split in strange places (where ordinary writing might have a comma).

For example:

Notice that the first line of paragraph 35 has no colon or dash at the end. A colon or dash would normally warn the reader that something else follows. Hiding information like this, so that the reader has to do more cognitive processing, is typical of easy read.

Notice that the first line of paragraph 36 breaks unnaturally, making it look as if “Always use images that are good and right” is a sentence. Then the next line says “for the people you are writing for,” which is incomprehensible. And the next line begins with another “For”. Again, the reader has to work hard to make sense of the easy read style. It would be better to have a comma after “good” and split the line naturally after “for”, or to leave “good” out entirely, as it adds nothing to the meaning.

The Inclusion Europe website, by the way, is one of the most confusing and badly written that I came across while researching this review. Its sloppy approach to communication illustrates a basic difficulty with easy read materials.

Take, for example, its page on the right to vote. The full version says something that is plainly very important, so important that it gets printed in bold type in the first sentence:

The right to vote is one of the most fundamental rights of European citizens. It is not only about taking part in the political process, but about being included in society and having our voice heard.

If you instead read the ‘easy read’ version, there is no mention of the fundamental rights of European citizens anywhere. That information has been censored, because it was deemed too difficult.

Conclusions

After this little romp through the ‘easy read’ guidance, I can only conclude that it’s a hoax. The significant features of easy read are either useless (for example, the pictures), or only useful for certain readers and not others (for example, the large print), or actually make the text harder to understand (for example, the missing information).

The fundamental problem seems to be that ‘easy read’ has been designed by bureaucrats to be a one-size-fits-all solution for people with a very wide variety of visual, perceptual and intellectual impairments. It treats them as a homogeneous child-like underclass, and that makes a mockery of the buzzword ‘inclusion’.

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About Rod

Chairman of the Gloucestershire charity Suicide Crisis, Vice Chair of Relate Gloucestershire & Swindon, and an enthusiast for public involvement in the NHS.
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One Response to Easy read

  1. Puppet says:

    Putting words in bold text mid-sentence is annoying and distracting. I get to the bold word, and can’t read any further because it just screams at me for several paragraphs afterwards. Urghhh. Ban Bold. And comic sans. And clipart.

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