Simple and easy language Reading without hurdles

Barrier-free access to information
Barrier-free access to information | Foto (Ausschnitt): © IJB © rosenoom - Fotolia.com

Not every adult finds reading easy. The concepts of simple and easy language aim to make texts comprehensible to everyone – so that everyone can take part in public life.

Daniel Homolka remembers well the first time he held a magazine in his hand that he could understand: Klar & Deutlich (i.e. Plain and Clear) publishes news in simple language. His German teacher gave it to him with the explanation that it is addressed to people with reading difficulties. At the time Homolka was attending a school for children with special needs and dreamed of one day being able to read crime novels. Klar & Deutlich is one of many publications that associations and translation agencies have developed following the adoption of the UN Disability Rights Convention in 2006, which aims at providing people with learning disabilities with barrier-free access to information.

Easy language: firm guidelines

“The concepts and rules of simple and easy language emerged from people’s work with learning difficulties”, explains Bärbel Mickler, board member of Netzwerk Leichte Sprache (i.e. Easy Language Network). “Based on movements in the United States, people thought about how texts should be written so that they are comprehensible to everyone.” The Easy Language Network, founded in 2006, wants to enhance the self-determination of adults by applying guidelines for easy language – independent of their reading skills and background knowledge. For example, it uses short sentences and well-known words, avoids foreign words and illustrates complex matters with photos and pictures. Not only people with learning difficulties use easy language: explanations of basic rights in easy language are often asked for by seniors and immigrants. The usefulness of easy language has been confirmed in the meantime by scientific studies.

picking the readers up where they live

Easy language is often referred to in the same breath as simple language. The strict rules of easy language, however, are designed above all for people with cognitive disabilities and learning difficulties. Simple language, on the other hand, wants to reach people with poor reading and writing skills through low-threshold services and seeks to orient itself more to the actual requirements of the envisaged group. “If I avoid the technical term ‘offside’ in a text for football fans, my readers feel I haven’t taken them seriously. And if I write something for apprentices in car workshops, I shouldn’t substitute another term for ‘catalytic converter’ but rather explain it. Our goal is to pick the readers up where they live and offer them the opportunity of learning more”, says Walburga Fröhlich, founder of the capito network, which provides translations and training for barrier-free communication.

Laws bring a fresh wind

In 2011 the Regulation for Creating Barrier-Free Information Technology was adopted. The law obliges agencies of the German Federal Administration to make their online services available in easy language. Beginning in 2018, explanations of notifications will likewise be provided in easy language free of charge. Easy or simple language can also help in inclusion in schools, though there are no guidelines here yet. “The changes in the law bring a fresh wind into the social discourse on comprehensibility, which is in any case already taking place because many people have trouble with how complex and technical our world is becoming”, says Christiane Maaß, Head of the Research Centre for Easy Language at the Institute of Translation Studies and Specialised Communication at the University of Hildesheim. Compared with the Scandinavian and Anglo-American countries, which have been studying this subject for thirty or forty years, Germany, she says, has entered the discussion late, but in an all the more professional manner.

guidelines should be further improved

Those concerned, welfare associations, translation agencies, scholars and scientists are now studying how the guidelines for easy language can be further optimised. Should texts by people with learning difficulties be examined? How can typography and graphics contribute to the comprehensibility of texts? And how can easy and simple language be given a better image so that people don’t feel ashamed of using it and decision-makers allot the needed resources for its promotion? Maaß would like to see opportunities for giving comprehensible texts an aesthetically pleasing design: “A newspaper text in easy language should look like a newspaper text, a novel like a novel. At the same time, the layout should be oriented to the needs of the target group, that is to say, texts should still be perceptually optimised.” She is currently collaborating with the Department of Barrier-Free Services of North German Broadcasting on an online book of fairy tales in easy language, which will be published in 2016. Crime novels in simple language are already available. But for Daniel Homolka that is no longer very important: he regularly vets texts for their comprehensibility for capito Stuttgart. Reading, he says, has now become his hobby.