I was moved when I read this recent series of articles exposing the problems with Arizona’s services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. By itself, the series is already a fine example of investigative journalism, but the authors also commissioned a translation of their work into Plain Language.
For instance, one of the articles is summarized as follows:
Arizona is known as the best state in the nation for people with developmental challenges. But its Division of Developmental Disabilities has turned down thousands of people who seek assistance because of paperwork issues.
Translated into what's called "Plain Language" in another version of the article, that summary became:
Arizona is known as the best state for people with developmental disabilities. But the Division of Developmental Disabilities has told many people they can’t have what they need. Sometimes it’s just because their paperwork is wrong.
Elsewhere, the editors explain (in Plain Language) why they commissioned the translations:
Amy Silverman wrote this story. She lives in Arizona. Amy’s daughter Sophie has Down syndrome. Down syndrome is a kind of developmental disability (DD). Amy knows what it’s like to get help for people with DD because she is trying to get Sophie what she needs. Amy wanted people with DD to be part of making the story. She wanted people with DD to be able to learn from the story. She didn’t want to write a story about people with DD that only people without DD could read. She didn’t think we should write this story how we normally do.
Although writers sometimes need to use a specialized vocabulary, lots of academic writing in particular is needlessly dense, with ideas buried under complicated syntax. But Plain Language shows how making our work easier to understand isn’t just a question of style; it’s a question of equity. To me, the changes made in the ProPublica articles are an example of radical copyediting -- making language more inclusive and using writing as a tool for change. I'll write more about that next time!