Access to information is essential for us to participate in society and lead healthy lives. Plain language helps us access that information, understand it, and use it to exercise our civil rights.
I was intrigued why the International Plain Language Federation chose to call their 2021 conference “plain language is a civil right.” So here’s my layperson’s understanding of the connection between plain language and civil rights.
[In this article…]
- What does plain language have to do with civil rights? A layperson’s take. We need access to information to exercise our civil rights. Plain language helps people access that information.
- What if you couldn’t read very well? (I’m functionally illiterate in Thai and that means I can’t do many things.)
- Plain language and governments: Plain language is part of good government (or governance). It helps governments be transparent and accountable to their people.
- The rights of the reader: A fun little poster. Readers have the right to not read!
What does plain language have to do with civil rights?
So what does plain language have to do with civil rights? (I’m not a lawyer so this is a purely layperson understanding of all this!)
Britannica defines civil rights as
guarantees of equal social opportunities and equal protection under the law, regardless of race, religion, or other personal characteristics.
Rebecca Hamlin, “Civil rights,” Britannica, updated 18 August 2021
To get those equal opportunities and equal protection, we need access to information. Information isn’t the only thing we need, but we can’t even begin if we don’t have information.
So when we write clearly, it helps people access that information, and understand and use it.
What if you couldn’t read very well?
In plain language versus Easy English, I mentioned how only about half the population of OECD countries (the world’s wealthier countries) are functionally literate.
That means half the population don’t have the reading skills to manage daily living and work.
Just think about this for a sec.
Well, I read all day! Obviously, I’m an editor and have to read for work, but I also read (many 🥴) letters and messages from the kids’ schools, bills, appointment reminders, maps and directions, instructions, ingredients on food packages, social media, music scores, and of course, fun books and articles.
I can only imagine what it would mean not to be able to read. But I do have one example.
An example: I’m functionally illiterate in Thai
[A recap from the plain language vs. Easy English post.]
I’m functionally illiterate in Thai. I can read some words veeeeeerrryyyy slowly and only with much effort and concentration. Reading a menu or a coupon is about the limit of what I can handle. Reading Thai is not fun.
And because I’m functionally illiterate, I can’t do much in the Thai system.
In hospitals, I’m at the mercy of my doctor (or would be, if they didn’t have top-notch foreigner-friendly English services—an example of the power of English…but that’s a topic for another post). I can’t read the test reports or medication instructions or the itemized list on my bill.
I waste money because I can’t read all the promotional messages from Grab (a service similar to Uber), my supermarket, cinemas, credit cards, coffee chain, etc.
Even trying to stay within the law (immigration law, especially!), I have to get information from my English-speaking family and FB groups to get up-to-date information on how to renew my visa, get re-entry permits, work, etc.
Should I get into trouble with the law (parking ticket in the mail…), I’d be utterly helpless. I wouldn’t know what my rights were or who I’m entitled to call.
(And I’m still privileged because I have my Thai family connections to help me out in any situation.)
Plain language and governments
The US Plain Writing Act of 2010 explicitly states that plain language is needed
to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the publicPublic Law 111 – 274 – Plain Writing Act of 2010
It was also evident at Clear Writing for Europe 2021 that European plain language initiatives were driven to make governments transparent and accountable to their people.
To try to sum up…
So plain language is a civil right because it helps the people—regardless of their education, income, legal status, language, disability, etc.—get the information they need and exercise their rights.
It means power isn’t held by a small group of elites (e.g., lawyers, doctors, government officials); it brings the power back to the people.
The rights of the reader
I thought this was interesting too: the rights of the reader 🙂
There are 10 rights, but here are the top three:
- The right not to read.
- The right to skip.
- The right not to finish a book.
It’s a good reminder that the readers don’t have to read anything. And they certainly won’t if they see it’s too difficult.
I haven’t read it but the following book was recommended at the Clear Writing for Europe 2021 conference:
- Russell Willerton. Plain Language and Ethical Action: A Dialogic Approach to Technical Content in the 21st Century, 1st edition. Routledge: 2015.
And here also is a lovely TED talk by Sandra Fisher-Martins at TEDxO’Porto, March 2011. (It’s in Portugese but transcripts are available in 14 languages).