Writing Government Information for People with Cognitive Disabilities – Jonathan Katz

Perfect.>>Are you gonna do an intro?>>Yeah, I’m gonna get us warmed up here. Good. Hi, everyone! Welcome to another installation of the New
York City accessibility Meetup, a11ynyc. We’ve been around for a few years now, and
I’m Cameron Cundiff, I’m one of the organizers. Also, my other organizers are Shawn Lauriat
and Thomas Logan, who are not here today, but who are remoting in via the live stream,
which some of you will be familiar with. On the other side of the camera. So I wanted to start by thanking a couple
of people. I wanted to thank thoughtbot, which is where
we are right now. They’re a design consultancy based with offices
with New York, Boston, and London. They’ve been very gracious to host us here
for a while now, so thank you. Also to SSB BART Group, who has been gracious
with sponsoring for a very good time now, and we really appreciate their support. Finally, we have a couple of regular supporters. Joly MacFie is with the Internet Society,
New York chapter, and is leading up their accessibility group in New York. And Mirabai Knight works with White Coat Captioning,
and she’s providing the captions tonight that you’ll see in the live feed and here in the
room. Let’s see. I wanna make sure I’m not missing anyone. Yeah. So everyone who’s joining in remotely — welcome. Finally, I think I’ll just introduce to you
Jonathan Katz. He’s here from the New York City Department
of Business? Small Business Services. And he’s gonna talk with us about his experience
and share some tips on writing content for people with cognitive disabilities in a government
context. So without further ado, thank you, Jonathan. Let’s all give him a warm welcome. (applause)>>Thanks. I always freak out a little bit with microphones,
so forgive me. So hi to everyone here. Glad it’s a little smaller here. Also, hello to everyone on the live stream. I know that there are a number of you. I’m Jonathan Katz. I’m a content and operations manager at the
New York City Department of Small Business Services. Like many people who come to these Meetups
and watch the recordings, I make internet. And a lot of what I’ve been thinking about
over the past two years now is writing with cognitive disability in mind. What do I do? So I do a whole lot of things at my job. I ensure ADA compliance and section 508 compliance,
which is why I come to these Meetups. I manage operations for NYC.gov/business,
I help out with design, I conduct surveys, I do metrics, but a lot of what I do is I
write content. And I come originally from an academic background. I wanted to get a PhD in immigration studies,
focusing on South Africa, and that’s a very different kind of writing forum, when you
need to write about laws that people need to understand, because otherwise, they’ll
get find or they’ll set their business on fire, or they’ll let a dangerous animal loose
on the streets. Those are all things that we cover on our
site. And those are all things that you cannot use
the advanced language of academic theory to describe. And that’s how I got into sort of ideas about:
How do we make content for various folks, including people with cognitive disabilities? And that’s a really big part of my job. It’s also personal for me. I’m on the autism spectrum, and I have non-verbal
learning disorder. Which is the form of autism I have. And I also have post-traumatic stress disorder. So it’s something that really… Hits home for me. And it’s something that I’ve also brought
in both to my job and then into also writing for Jewish magazines. My food blog. And Jewish media in general. And so I think we should then go just straight
into it. About writing for cognitive disability. Which is oftentimes a very overlooked form
of disability. Partly because it is not usually visible. And partly because in many ways, society is
just so structured against people with certain cognitive disabilities that we don’t even
necessarily think of it at all. A cognitive disability is generally described
as some sort of condition or trait that means that the person who has it has more difficulty
or more awkwardness, if you will, with one or more types of mental tasks. This can be thought. This can be language. This can be information processing. This can be sensory processing. This can be literacy. This can be all sorts of things that involve
the brain and processing information and processing the information around you. It’s a very broad concept. The disabled world says that it can encompass
all sorts of things. Sometimes they’re very mild — in ableist
terms, of course — disabilities, such as dyslexia, or other small learning disabilities. Some of them are intellectual disabilities
that can affect a wide range of life, such as Down syndrome, and many come about later
in life or through medical incidents, such as brain injuries or medical aftereffects
of hypoxia — that’s not having enough oxygen — or dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s
disease. And many of them start at birth, but many
of them occur at any age. And generally speaking, it’s about 2% to 3%
of the US population. In some places, it’s higher. In some places, it’s lower. And then once you start counting in projections
of how many people will have a cognitive disability at some point in their life, especially because
of age-related diseases, it gets much higher. So here are some types of cognitive disability. I put up a few of them. There’s some cognitive disabilities that manifest
themselves in lower intelligence. And there are a variety of rude words that
often begin with R that describe — rude words. Not lewd words. That describe these cognitive disabilities. Some of them are more complex. Down syndrome usually — not only includes
disabilities relating to low intelligence, but also encompasses certain aspects that
we would consider physical disability. There’s a big question over whether or not
autism spectrum is a cognitive disability. But most professionals and most people with
autism that I’ve met — myself included — would argue yes, because it does impact sensory
processing and social skills, and oftentimes other things as well. There are also, quote-unquote, “smaller” cognitive
disabilities. Dyslexia, which is of course a cognitive disability
that affects the ability to read, and then the lesser known, but probably just as prevalent
dyscalculalia, which affects the understanding of numbers. There are a whole other category of things
— coordination disorders. And you have age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s,
and then what’s not on this list is also cognitive disabilities that come about after brain injury,
which is particularly common in developed countries, because of the rate of car accidents
that we have here. And that is oftentimes one of the largest
causes for cognitive disability between the ages of 18 and 70. And that is something that is very often overlooked. It’s also important to say what is not cognitive
disability. And this is something that we really have
to thank a movement for about 40 years of people saying that people with cognitive disabilities
have the right to live independent, happy lives, with whatever support they need. And to achieve their dreams, as they interpret
them, in a world as they interpret it. Cognitive disabilities don’t necessarily make
you less capable, be it less capable of living or of doing things. There are a lot of very achieved people who
have cognitive disabilities. Actors, athletes, and so on and so forth. But even then, whatever you do or don’t do
— it doesn’t make you less worthy of services, rights, or personal safety and security. And that is also a major concern. Particularly because many people who do have
their rights affected, say, in the workplace, or in the medical system, are people with
cognitive disabilities who still have less recourse to action and less access to information
on what they can do. It’s also not something that makes someone
less-than or something that makes them less of a person. And I think this is something that we really
struggle with a lot in progressive communities, is this — we measure so many things based
on intelligence or based on being cognitively able, but we ignore what we then say about
the people with cognitive disabilities and their communities. As I’ve said, it’s also not something that
can’t happen to you. Because anyone can develop a cognitive disability
at any time. Be it from, God forbid, an accident, or maybe
more happily, reaching a very old age and developing an age-related disease that causes
changes in a brain. And this is not something that should push
someone outside a community. If you’re interested in this, I would recommend
looking at the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network. An awesome thing
about how cognitive disability was not considered normal after the 19th century, and the Down
Syndrome Information Alliance. That has a lot of great information that is
really great to read. And the most important thing to remember is:
People with cognitive disabilities are people. And we should also produce information that
they can use and read. And make good of. So… One thing — there are a number of problems,
when people with cognitive disabilities often find with web information and with written
information. The most common is that the language is too
complex. Many people with cognitive disabilities have
processing issues around language or cannot process language in the same way as, quote-unquote,
“normal” people, or may or may not have received as much education or may or may not have as
much ability with literacy. They might not necessarily be able to read
as well. Another problem is that the formatting is
bad and it’s made in a way that can not be understood. That is also something that makes it very
frustrating for users, because it’s in a way that might seem intuitive to whoever designed
it, but is particularly difficult for someone with a cognitive disability. Sometimes it’s also a matter of methods of
communication. Many people with cognitive disabilities cannot
communicate in a certain way. And this particularly affects reading and
writing. So if it’s something that requires a lot of
reading, some people with cognitive disabilities might not be able to necessarily understand
that. Pictorial explanation might be better. In other cases, some people with cognitive
disabilities can’t really understand pictures, and so text might be better. So the general assumption is that information
for people with cognitive disabilities — and for everyone — should be perceivable, understandable,
well formatted, and widely communicable. This means it can be understood, seen as information
that’s useful, seen as information that’s organized in a way that can be understood,
and something that can be explained across a wide variety of levels. Of course, there are challenges with this. The biggest one is no two people with cognitive
disabilities are the same. Someone who is, say, someone with Asperger’s
syndrome, who is very much more linguistically attuned then, say, pictorially attuned, will
have very different needs than someone who, say, has a cognitive disability that affects
intelligence and is not functionally literate. In addition, sometimes with making sure that
people can understand the language we produce, we worry about: Are we going to provide accurate
information? Are we going to provide the shades of meaning
that we want? Are we going to provide the meaning that we
need to provide? Are we going to say the things that we need
to say? One really huge issue is that a lot of things
that are specifically intended for people with cognitive disabilities, particularly
for people with Down syndrome and who are autistic tend to be very paternalistic. Talking down. Or tend to be just not particularly respectful
of that person. And oftentimes, readers will just switch off. Just because somebody has a cognitive disability
doesn’t mean they want to be talked down to. This is something we’ve particularly seen
in, say, books in schools. There are also linguistic and cultural differences. People with cognitive disabilities come from
different cultures. Not just in the way that cognitive disability
is addressed, but also in the way that language is used, in the way that colors are used,
in the way that words are used, in the way that simple sentences are ordered. For example, somebody with a cognitive disability
from Turkey will probably look for words at the end of the sentence, because in Turkey,
things that are important are usually placed at the end of the sentence by the verb. Whereas someone who speaks English might be
more attuned to words at the beginning of the sentence, because that’s where we tend
to do that in English and some other languages. Another issue is volume. If it’s a lot of information, many people
with cognitive disabilities don’t necessarily have the ability to process all of that at
once. And that is something that is also a challenge. How do you get the amount of information that
you want to get across, if it’s the information that you actually need to get across — across? And finally, the biggest challenge — normal
people are really not particularly attuned towards the fact that cognitive disability
is something that should be addressed. There’s this idea — oh, they’re too stupid
to do anything. Oh, they don’t necessarily have the ability. Or oh, why should I do that? It’s not like they will understand anyway. Well, did you try? Is a really big question. And I think that is something that really
hits on a lot of the challenges that also people who are not — who do not have cognitive
disabilities — don’t necessarily think of people who do. And don’t necessarily think of how to make
things accessible. So what can we do to make information that
is usable, respectful, and of high quality? Information that people with cognitive disabilities
— and everyone else — can use? And make good use of? And use to do whatever they want to do? If they decide they want to do it, after reading
the information? So I’m now going to walk through several techniques
and ideas that apply partly to web writing, and partly also to just general information
production. This also applies to pamphlets, books, business
cards — you name it, it can probably go on there. Whoops. So the first one is: Keep it simple and keep
it direct. Why? Well, on a broad level, simple and direct
language is most widely understood. For example, if I was saying a recipe, I would
not say: Place the hydrogen dioxide into the metal container and place it over a fire made
of natural gas. I would say… Put water in a pot and put it on to boil. And this is something that initially sounds
very intuitive, but is oftentimes — as soon as you actually start writing — completely
thrown out. I was recently editing for one of my colleagues
a guide to commercial leases. And this is supposed to be a simplified guide. And instead of saying “you need”, or “do this”,
it was like — please remember that it is important not to commit funds before… Whereas you can just say… Don’t buy… Don’t purchase… Don’t spend money… Before X, Y, Z. This goes to the second point. Use words for meaning, and don’t really use
them for sound. I think we all are guilty of using words that
we think look really good on a page. And also, I know that there are even people
with cognitive disabilities who have done this. But this can make things really inaccessible. You know, this is, again, the case of saying:
It is important to remember not to commit funds. Also, be direct. A lot of people with cognitive disabilities
don’t necessarily understand common idioms. So instead of saying “throw the baby out with
the bathwater”, say “get rid of the thing that you want”. And a lot of people with cognitive disabilities
also have limited vocabularies. This is particularly true for people who have
cognitive disabilities that affect intelligence. But also for people with age-related diseases,
who lose the ability to use language as part of the condition. So if you’re writing something for a medicine
that… I don’t know… Treats stomachaches, and a lot of the people
who are using it are elders, and don’t necessarily have all of the language that they used to
still with them… It would be important to use as simple language
as possible. If you’re producing content in another language,
you also need to know what is simple language in that language. Because things are very, very different from
language to language, and if you’re working with translations, that is something that
is important to remember. That what that limited language is — is also
going to affect it. So, for example, in Turkish, the passive tense
is used far more extensively. It’s actually used in commands. So, for example, the words for “do not smoke”
— it’s not “do not smoke”. It’s cigarettes are not smoked. And that is something that someone with a
cognitive disability, with limited language, in Turkey, will probably learn. Whereas someone might not necessarily learn
the passive tense in English. And this is something that’s important to
keep in mind for translations, particularly because oftentimes, with cognitive disabilities
that develop later in life, it also intersects with a need for access in different languages. So, for example, someone who… This is something that we’re seeing a lot
now in the City. Is that we have a lot of Russian speakers. Who came to the United States later in life. And now who are aging, and who are — as part
of dementia or Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s — forgetting the English that they learned. But they’re also forgetting the more educated
Russian that they may have learned in school or university. So many of the Russian translations for very
important things are often too complicated for them to understand. Even though they need to understand them in
Russian, because the Russian is simply too complicated. And in this case, simple and direct Russian
would probably help a lot more. So one example that I saw is in Cape Town,
where I just was visiting my family. There’s been a drought, and they’ve been distributing
these really great water pamphlets. Explaining to people how to find leaks. Everyone right now in Cape Town is very limited
in how much water they can use by the city government, and they’ve been really producing
a lot of information. Everything in Cape Town is produced in three
languages. English, Afrikaans, and Xhosa. And they produce everything in about — what
in the United States would be equivalent to a grade 4 reading level. I have the three cards in English, Afrikaans,
and Xhosa up right now. And do note that some of the words might seem
a little advanced, if you’re reading it. And I’m gonna give a description for each
image here. Each image is a clockwise diagram, surrounding
a water faucet with one drop coming out. The first one is for all three — is water
faucet, with one drop coming out, with an X over the drop. The second one is a water meter reading with
an 8-digit number. The third one has a clock on it. And the fourth one has a telephone. They’re in English, Afrikaans, and Xhosa. And I’ll just read aloud to English. It says: Keep on saving water. Quick reference card for water leaks. Check your taps, check your meter reading,
wait a short period, ten minutes, and take another reading. Make sure no one flushes the tap or the toilet. If there’s a difference in the reading, you
have a leak. You need a plumber to find and fix the leak. And in the center, it says: How do you check
if you have a water leak? This is written in very simple English. Which is very good, because also many of the
people in South Africa only have third or fourth grade educations. But also for people with cognitive disabilities,
this is very good, because it says: What you need to do, directly. It doesn’t use idiomatic language. Which is a particular temptation here, because
in South Africa, there are a lot of idioms around water. It doesn’t dance around the bush. It doesn’t say: If you have accidental hydrological
drainage. It just says: Keep on saving water. And it uses a very intuitive organizational
structure of how do you actually check that you have a leak. The Afrikaans is also very simple. I don’t speak Xhosa, but I’ve been told that
the Xhosa is a second grade reading level from a native speaker. And this is an example of, you know, simple
and direct and culturally attuned. The second thing is really: Format it well. And I think we’ve talked a lot about formatting
in past Meetups. There was a Meetup a number of months ago,
talking about how we organize PDF documents. And this really got me thinking about this. Large blocks of text, lots of text, and nested
lists are really hard for many people to follow. But especially people with cognitive disabilities
who may already be frustrated with reading the text in the first place. And particularly if it’s a nested list, a
nested list that has lots of different headers and lots of different things to follow — it’ll
just maybe be ignored or maybe be a source of great difficulty. This is something we see a lot in city documents,
where people will have a list like this, of bullet points, and then underneath will be
more bullet points. And then — oh my! What do you think they’re gonna put underneath
some of those bullet points? Bullet points. And besides being oftentimes frighteningly
ugly, it’s also really hard to read. In addition, alongside these, like, long texts
is that many people with cognitive disabilities have a history of being teased or shamed or
bullied about their reading or lack of reading skills. And then become scared of reading lengthy
texts, because they think they can’t do it. And then will just ignore them. So besides the fact that many of them will
not be able to read a long passage, people with cognitive disabilities will often avoid
long passages. So if you have all of this times three in
one paragraph, then many people will pick this up and be like… I can’t read this. Oh, no. Goodbye. Another thing is that if there’s especially
important information, like, for example, do not put this gas tank by a flame… That should be really legible. And that should stand out. That should not be buried in a paragraph. I was editing for another person in the agency
a piece of content about what to do in case of an emergency. And the thing about — if you have a flood,
you really need to call 911 — was hidden somewhere in the second paragraph, in a nested
list. That’s just not good formatting generally,
but particularly for someone with a cognitive disability, that can be very frustrating to
find or not be found at all. Alongside these rules, everything else about
good practice and formatting applies. Use color contrast that works for text. Don’t have grey text on white backgrounds. Don’t use too many colors. That can be very overwhelming for many people. And use headings so that people can find where
they actually are. I would also say that something else is that
many people with cognitive disabilities tend to react very badly to certain very bright
colors. No one really knows why this is. But there is an increased documentation that
yellow is a color to be avoided. So here’s an example that I get to see a lot. On the website that I do most of my writing
for, we have this thing called a description page. It’s a piece of content that explains a license,
regulation, a permit, or a process. This is one page about state needs for how
you get this thing called an apostele, which is a stamp that says this document is real,
or for language translations that are certified. The title of the page is language translation
and apostele information, for those of you who cannot see the slide. The format we’ve done for description pages
is that they oftentimes have four tabs. One is called about. The other ones, which are not visible on this
example — not every page has them — is apply. Before you apply, apply, after you apply,
and operating and renewing. And before you apply is in apply. Sorry about that. And then oftentimes we’ll have headers. So this one — I formatted it to have it with
translation and interpretation, authentications and aposteles, and documents from abroad. Underneath, there’s a section that’s not visible
here, called additional resources, where people can go and find links. This is something where — if someone is only
looking for a link, they can go and do it, and it’s not in bright colors. It’s simple white and black. There used to be some blue on there. And yeah. And I was not there for the design, but my
boss, who’s here, was. So this is something that helps. The next one. Fonts matter. Many people with cognitive disabilities have
difficulty with fonts. We often think of this in terms of dyslexia. People who have dyslexia oftentimes have trouble
reading certain fonts. Particularly fonts with serifs. So if you’re familiar with Times New Roman,
that’s that little hook at the end of many letters. That is a serif, and that is something that
can really change the way a letter is perceived. It can be seen as another letter or as a blob
or as two letters or three letters. So you want to use fonts without serifs. With distinct letters. So you want to try to use a font that doesn’t
have things like R, N, and M looking too similar or capital I and L looking exactly the same. This font does have them different. It’s called Trebuchet MS. You want to have the letters a consistent
size and you want to have them spaced out so that people can actually read them. For people with dyslexia, this is particularly
important, so that letters can be seen as distinguished. And then it’s not a struggle to read. Types of fonts tend to be better for many
cognitive disabilities than those that imitate handwriting. Those that imitate handwriting tend to be
harder to read for many people with dyslexia, although some do say the opposite. But then for some other people with cognitive
disabilities, it can also be harder to read handwritten fonts, since the letter shapes
will vary more widely, and for many people with cognitive disabilities, reading different
types of writing can already be somewhat challenging. You also want to watch out for similar letters. A and O are often swapped by people with dyslexia. R, N, and M are often swapped by people with
dyslexia. And I’m pretty sure by people who don’t have
dyslexia. T and F and capital I and lowercase l. Make sure that fonts are of a readable size
and color. One thing with many people with cognitive
disabilities — it’s also that reading attainment might be such that they won’t be able to necessarily
read something that’s in very fine print, and then with things around processing colors,
it can also be very overwhelming if there’s, say, two or three different text colors going
on at the same time. So, for example, food packaging can be very
overwhelming for many people with certain cognitive disabilities. Because it’s just… There are too many things going on at once. And then everything shuts down. Something that’s really helpful here is that
there are many fonts that were specifically designed for people with cognitive disabilities
in mind. There’s one called ReadSpace and ReadRegular,
based in the Netherlands, that’s now used by some Dutch publishers, specifically designed
for people with dyslexia. There are a couple of other dyslexia-specific
fonts. There are also fonts, the names of which I
don’t remember, that were designed for folks with various low intelligence cognitive disabilities. And then there are also fonts that are accidentally
really good, like Trebuchet MS, or something that you might be familiar with — the fonts
from the London Underground. This is Johnston. This is the Johnston 100 version. It was originally designed in the ’30s, when
cognitive disability definitely wasn’t on the radar, but it turns out to have been one
of the most useful fonts for accessibility for people with dyslexia and also for books
and other writing for people with Down syndrome, other low intelligence cognitive disabilities,
dementia, you name it. Pictured we have the placard for Johnston
with the lowercase alphabet, the iconic Mind the Gap, and the iconic G. And then on the right, you have it in all
capital letters at the Baker Street Tube Station in London. There’s also a mural of someone smoking a
pipe. This font has been used pretty extensively. Now, with fonts, I’ve been requested by someone
on the live stream to talk about this. Comic Sans is actually not a good choice. There’s a common assumption in the cognitive
disability community, made more popular by a blog post on a feminist site called the
Establishment, that hating Comic Sans is ableist, because some people with dyslexia find it
easier to read than any other font. I am personally not against Comic Sans, aesthetically. Please don’t throw me out the window. But Comic Sans is not that accessible for
even many people with dyslexia. Many people find it too bold, and the O and
A are so similar that people have trouble distinguishing. In addition, many people find it condescending,
and get the feeling that they’re being condescended to when the information is being written in
Comic Sans. One thing that’s happening now in the UK is
that many warning signs are written in Comic Sans. So you’ll have: Warning, danger of death,
in many electrical substations, on a yellow background with Comic Sans, and while the
intent is to make it more accessible and more friendly, what it also means is that many
people have to come very close to the electrical substation to read: Warning. Danger of Death. And are also offput by the ghastly shade of
yellow, which maybe is a good thing, because you don’t want to get electrocuted. Generally speaking, some of the fonts that
are better for people with dyslexia include this one, Trebuchet MS, Calibri, Century Gothic,
although it has an O/A distinction problem, and Highway Gothic, which you will be familiar
with, because it is on Highway signs. Now, I said you should be simple and direct,
but you should also try to say things in more than one way. People communicate in different ways. Just as some people use phones, email, some
people use messenger pigeon, some people with cognitive disabilities prefer pictures and
some prefer words. So if you can have both in a process, it helps
people understand what’s going on. Particularly for people who might not necessarily
be as literate. And again, another thing that’s really helpful
is if you have a summary at the beginning or the end of a particularly lengthy document,
that can really help. Something that I’ve been seeing a lot in sort
of just like… When you get medicine now… Is the government warnings will come with
a summary of like — what’s the highest risk thing with this medicine? And then if you’re interested in the 0.001%
chance that it makes you go to the bathroom funny, that’s somewhere in the fine print. But what’s actually important and the too
long; didn’t read is — it’s up there. And if you use pictures as summaries, some
people, if they’re rush-reading, it’s pretty good for everyone. So a couple of years ago — and I’ll describe
this poster for the folks on the live stream who can’t see the poster. In a moment. A couple of years ago, the New York City Department
of Health was distributing these posters in 15 different languages. One of which was Yiddish. So my friend sent this to me, because they
did a very, very specific Jewish thing in one of the boxes. Which I was really impressed by. I don’t speak Yiddish, but it explained: How
to wash the hands. Unfortunately, it is yellow. And it’s meant for children about four or
five. But what’s really good about this is that
it’s both in words and also in pictures that very clearly explain how you’re supposed to
wash your hands. Clearly. So it says — what I’ve been told is wash
the hands in Yiddish, and then it has nine boxes of someone rinsing their hands, soaping
their hands, lathering their hands, rinsing the lather off their hands, drying each hand,
and then they’ve added three more for the common religious Jewish practice of washing
your hands ritually, after certain bodily activities. So they have water coming out of a cup, drying
your hands again, making sure that people don’t just do the ritual hand wash, but also
wash with soap. And then on number nine, they have a paper
towel, and on the paper towel, they’ve written in Hebrew the prayer that you say after you
go to the bathroom. So it’s culturally attuned, but it also explains,
for people who may not necessarily deal with words that well, or may not necessarily be
able to put words into action, what their supposed to imitate. Something I’ve also seen, that I wasn’t able
to get a copy of, digitized in time, was their organizations that are making visual guides
to Jewish rituals. Some of them were inspired by posters like
this. And this communicates both in words and in
picture. And makes it really accessible. Okay. This is where your English teacher is wrong. Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. There is no shame in repetition. There’s no shame in sounding like a broken
record. There’s no shame in saying the same word over
and over and over again. Because people understand. If there was a fire, you would not say — fire! Conflagration! Burning! Brand! I would say fire, fire, fire! And this is something we can take from buildings
burning down all the way to how we write things. This is something how in a lot of communications
we’re like — we don’t like repetition. It looks ugly. But at the same time, with each turn of phrase,
it becomes harder to understand. And with people with cognitive disabilities,
the ability to understand that different things might actually be the same thing might be
limited. So if you use the same word over and over
again, it helps people understand what they need to know and it also puts it all into
context for someone. And repetition is also important, because
many people with cognitive disabilities oftentimes don’t have access to the same education as
normal people. So even if the linguistic abilities are what
we would call normal, the educational attainment might be much lower because of the abysmal
state of education for people with cognitive disabilities in this country. It’s really bad. People with cognitive disabilities of the
same language ability as a quote-unquote “normal” person oftentimes will have a reading level
half of the normal person, who has the same… Everything else. Even if this person is capable of reaching
that same reading level. Just as a note, this is also a particularly
English-centric problem. In many other languages, it is much more acceptable
to repeat words over and over again. We also tend to use a lot more different words
in English than in other languages. But one thing here is that the… UK government has also now been saying that
you should try to repeat words. So when you apply for a UK visa, it doesn’t
say like on certain other countries’ sites like this one, different words for visa. Apply for a UK visa. You can apply for a visa to join a family
member in the UK, work, or study. Check for what kind of visa you’ll need and
what kind of documents. Also check if you need to get a tuberculosis
test. So it says visa, visa, visa. Not visa, permission to stay, leave to stay. People with cognitive disabilities travel
too. This is one that is also challenging for many
folks without cognitive disabilities, even for many people with cognitive disabilities
whose intelligence is not affected. It’s speaking as an equal. Many things for people with cognitive disabilities
are often addressed in a condescending way. It’s like looking down and like… You can get help to… Or… You can do it in your own special way, even
though you can’t do it in the normal way. And even if someone with a cognitive disability
might have lower intelligence, they can still pick up on condescension. They feel offended. It’s frustrating. It’s rude. And one of the biggest things that’s come
out of journalism and research on this state and how it interacts with people with cognitive
disabilities is that they feel condescended to all the time. Particularly in institutions. But also just even in everything that is produced
with a cognitive disability audience in mind. So you should try to communicate as an equal,
whatever that means. Realizing that that can mean many different
things for many different cognitive disabilities. My tip is to try to think of it through someone
else’s eyes, which can be… Or someone else’s ears or someone else’s head
space or someone else’s feeling… Because that is a particularly great way to
think of it. But there’s also another thing — is just
sort of think about: How do you want to be addressed? And then do the other language tweaking from
your experience to a more broad experience. And even with that, it’s also important to
remember that someone with a cognitive disability will still be someone who wants to be independent
and do their own things. So I’m going to — there might be just one
moment where the captions are not available. Or not visible. I’m just going to show you guys something
on the next screen. So one thing that I’ve been really excited
about… Is that there are now cookbooks intended for
people with various cognitive disabilities. That don’t say… Oh, get someone to help you with this. Because you can’t cook on your own. But, rather, we’re going to cook. You’re going to cook. And we’re going to explain it in the way that
you think of it. So this book, which came out ten years ago,
is a cookbook that explains recipes in pictures for people who cannot read. Not just for people who are illiterate because
they were not educated, but for people who cannot read because of their cognitive disability. And it was intended mostly for people on the
autism spectrum or people with Down syndrome who are moving out of their parents’ houses
or other family houses, or institutions, to live on their own. Or to live in an assisted facility where they
can still cook. And it explains, picture by picture, from
washing hands all the way down to washing the dishes, how to cook various things. There’s another one. One sec. That just came… Oh. There’s another one that just came out. Let’s Cook Healthy Meals for Independent Living. Actually came out a number of years ago. And this was written by people who have family
members with Down syndrome, and how they wrote recipes to teach their kids or siblings with
Down syndrome how to cook. Which is really great. And now not only are the family members cooking,
but this cookbook is now being used by many people with Down syndrome across the country. And it also uses very simple language, but
not condescending language, walking people through the process of making things. There are also — this has become a bit of
a cottage genre, and there are now dozens of cookbooks out in various languages that
are intended for people with cognitive disabilities, not from the point of view of get your friend
or your mother or father to help you with this, but rather — let’s cook this. This is what you need. This is what you do. And we’re going to communicate it on your
level, because you want to do this too, and you will do this too, and you will eat a meal,
and you will be happy. And these cookbooks are actually really good
cookbooks. And part of the lesson from this is: Know
your readers. Because different cognitive disabilities result
in different needs. Someone who is on the autism spectrum may
have very high linguistic capacities. Many people on the autism spectrum learn 10
to 15 languages, which is amazing. But might not necessarily be able to understand
certain social rules or be able to handle certain color combinations. Meanwhile, someone who has Down syndrome might
not necessarily be able to understand certain very complicated language, but can handle
lots of different colors, and may actually prefer lots of different colors. So it really depends on audience. And a lot of these roles are just broad. Don’t be condescending, and still format well,
no matter how complicated your thing is. Sometimes you will need to use very specialized
language for law or medicine, or business analysis. And sometimes you will need to be sure that
you use very direct and simple language. If you’re writing something that’s health
and safety, or if you’re writing a recipe, you’ll want to use much simpler language than,
say, if you’re writing about tax law for insurance companies in Nevada. So it’s really knowing your audience and having
done that research in advance. But while still keeping in mind that lots
of cognitive disabilities mean lots of different things. Dyslexia is something that has to be thought
about at any level of language, for example, whereas health and safety information really
covers everything. And needs to be written in simple language. So here’s an example. I’m not gonna read it aloud, but this is from
How You Take the Bar Exam in New York. It’s a professional licensure document. And it uses very, very complicated language. Because that is how law is written in this
country. But it is still formatted in a way where someone
who may have a visual processing cognitive disability or dyslexia can still find where
they actually need to read. So if you are looking for stuff about New
York Law Course, you can just go right to header 4 and skip over the first few things. This is part of a 28-page document, so I just
screenshotted it. But it’s still something where they know the
audience. And I think something to remember through
all of this: It’s not just for people with cognitive disabilities. Because you also benefit. So here’s a screenshot of Oxford. So I did my masters degree at the University
of Oxford, and this is a lot of people. Some of whom have cognitive disabilities. Most of whom don’t. Who are supposed to be the smartest people
in the world, who can understand any sort of language. And so on and so forth. People every year get large numbers of points
docked off their masters thesis, because they cannot understand the printing directions,
which are very complicated, and theses need to be bound in a certain way, printed in a
certain way, printed in a certain font, come with a plastic cover on a specific side, and
a different plastic cover on the other side, and they need to be submitted at a certain
place in a certain type of envelope. This alone is too complicated, and has been
roundly critiqued. But the directions for this were not just,
like, a paragraph saying you need this, this, this, this, this. But for many masters students, they received
something that was two pages in length, and I personally somehow managed to, you know,
get it all in. But I know a lot of people who wrote brilliant
theses, but who were not given the grades that they deserved, because they didn’t submit
it right. Something else that I found out this afternoon
is that the World Bank is also now trying to get its writers to use simpler language,
because the journalists who are supposed to be covering it cannot understand the reports
they’re supposed to be writing to the public. So these are mostly people without cognitive
disabilities. Although there are a lot of people with dyslexia
or on the autism spectrum at Oxford and I’m sure in the World Bank. And they still would benefit from the rules
here. So in the last three, four minutes, I just
want to go through a couple of tools that you can use. And for those of you on the live stream, if
you open a second window, you can take a peek at these. One is grade level checkers. We try to aim in New York City government
for a grade 6 reading level. Health and safety information — we really
try not to go past grade 4. Sometimes some things will be grade 7 or grade
8, and I’m trying to get some agencies to cut things down from grade 12. There are these things called the Kinkaide
Tests, and you can get one at readable.io. It will tell you what the reading level is. The Hemingway App is also really great, because
it not only tells you what the grade level is, but also makes sure you’re using direct
language. So, for example, instead of saying “it is
important that”, say “you need”. There’s this thing in the ’60s and ’70s, called
Simple English, that was developed by Voice of America to make sure that all of the propaganda
telling people that capitalism was great was easily understood by people learning English. It is a specifically delineated limited vocabulary,
and it is now widely used in English teaching. There’s a Wikipedia on Simple English and
language textbooks do it too, but it’s also great it can be used for simple language for
people with cognitive disabilities. So something that really helps is: Look through
a Simple English dictionary, if you can access one, and see: Is the word there? If it’s not there, you probably shouldn’t
use it. You can also just use image searches to find
educational photos for things that explain to people how to do something. And something I’ve really liked doing is:
Look through kids’ picture books. Because we use them to teach people, and it’s
also different ways of conveying information. And it’s oftentimes — they’re often written
in very equal level ways that are not condescending, so there’s actually a lot to learn from them. And use pictures. Remember the alt text. And then just ask people around you: Do you
understand this? What do you think? So here’s my contact information. Jonathan P Katz at Gmail.com. You can follow me on Twitter at Jonathanpkatz,
although that’s mostly things that I cook. So yeah. Questions? Sveta? Okay. We’re going to have Sveta’s question read
aloud by me?>>I can read it aloud. I’ll get nearer so that Mirabai can hear me. I have a comment and some questions. Agreed with writing for people with cognitive
disabilities. Plain language is not meant to dumb down. It also helps regular people understand information,
especially if they’re tired or stressed or in a rush. For example, I may understand advanced English,
but when reading some legalese, I feel overwhelmed with too much legal jargon, and especially
in fine print and in all caps. So simplifying legal information helps me
better understand legal information. I’ve actually heard of lawyers advocating
for plain language when writing legal documents, because many people without any cognitive
disabilities are intimidated enough with complicated legal lingo.>>Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes.>>I find it interesting about bulleted lists,
because according to User Experience, they’re easier to follow than a full text paragraph. How to handle bulleted lists? And what do you mean by English language having
rules not to repeat words? Can you elaborate more on this?>>Okay. I’ll answer the second question first. Because… The first question will take me a little longer
to answer. For the second question, it’s: English speaking
countries, culturally, have a thing about repeating words. It’s taught in the educational systems that
if you repeat words, it makes you a bad writer. Which is not true. It makes you a writer that’s not adhering
to a certain cultural idea of English. This is something that started off in the
UK in the 19th century and spread to the US, Australia, New Zealand. Not as much South Africa. But in the big English-speaking countries,
it’s been taught for about 150 years now that you should avoid repeating words. So that’s a cultural thing, more. And it’s across the English-speaking world. To a much bigger extend than other languages. I know, for example, that in my native language,
which is Hebrew, it’s much more common to repeat words. Not just because Hebrew has only been spoken
for about 120 years as a first language, recently, but also because it’s taught that it’s actually
fine to repeat words, especially — and especially because if you use really fancy words in Israel,
it’s kind of seen as a no-no. So the first question, with bulleted lists
— I think bulleted lists are fine when used well. And not when it’s like so long that the purpose
is defeated, in that the list is, like, this long. I’m holding up my hands very wide. And then also not to have bulleted lists within
bulleted lists. Because those are not only difficult to read,
but they also sort of defeat the purpose of the bulleted list, often, in the first place. So a bulleted list of eight points — I’m
with you. It’s really great to read those. A bulleted list of 88 points… With 10 nested lists in there, and maybe one
might have a list within that nest… That’s not okay. And I haven’t quite seen it to that extent,
but I’ve definitely seen 20-plus bullet points with nested lists under half of them, which
just makes it really unreadable. And as an aside, makes it incredibly frustrating
when you’re doing a screen reader test. Cool. Yes?>>I’m just curious where the, like, levels
that you spoke about — like, you said NYC tries to aim for a 6th grade level. I’m curious about where that comes from. Is that different based on the audience or
the content?>>It’s different based on country. And there are national educational standards
for reading. But they used… For a general assumption of what is a 6th
grade reading level — partly also from teacher colleges and teacher training. But of course each country teaches different
vocabulary or has vocabulary that’s more commonly in use. So, for example, property measurements in
South Africa are measured in earths, which is used only in legalese here, but it will
be used in front page newspaper in South Africa. So it definitely differs according to country. But there definitely seems to be a national
idea in the US and Canada of what a normal person in 6th grade will read, which is oftentimes
roughly the reading level that someone with certain types of cognitive disability might
attain as an adult. Because of educational access and linguistic
abilities and all that jazz.>>A couple questions from Thomas on the live
stream. Make sure… Okay. So Mirabai, you can hear me. I wanted to… This mic is on. Good. The first question is: What font sizes does
your agency use for materials?>>Generally size 12 or size 14.>>Generally size 12 or size 14. And the second question is: Any tips on how
to set up a glossary or definition list for complex terms?>>I think it really depends on the documents. On our website, nyc.gov/business, we have
a glossary page. That people are now increasingly using. That explains many common city terms. For many documents, what I’ve seen are… Indexes that have simple definitions of terms. Footnotes, which I’m not as much of a fan
of, because it makes for disturbing formatting, for many people. Or even just writing it right into the text,
what you mean by a term. The first time that you use it. And then indicate the term somehow with bold
text, for example. This is done a lot in textbooks. And it’s also done a lot when you’re applying
for licenses. It’s like… You will need this thing. This thing does that. That is this thing.>>I had a comment and a question. There’s a font called (inaudible) that was
designed for people with dyslexia that might be useful for some people. I also had a question similar to the bulleted
list question. When you said, like, not to present too much
information at once, do you have any guidelines for how much is too much information to have? Like, one webpage… Is it better to break it up into different
pages that are more digestible?>>It really depends on the information. I would say 3 to 6 points is a nice sweet
spot for bullet points, unless it’s literally a list of items, in which — then it can go
longer. It also really depends… But it’s really context-specific. And I think it’s really also a feel thing. I would say that with separate pages or separate
sections, it’s generally when it starts to feel like two big things at once, or when
it’s like something that’s complicated enough where you might want to explain it in its
own section — it comes there. And that’s just a lot coming in from editing. The easiest thing to do is don’t throw the
kitchen sink into the section. Don’t put everything in one go. That makes for a really awkward reading, and
also becomes really frustrating. Yeah?>>I really liked the point about the grade
reading level, using the 6th grade reading level for all my outbound communication. The confusion, where there is a dilemma, is
when the nature of the content is more technical, more legal, or more scientific in nature. While you cannot simplify it, but there is
a certain way you can probably simplify the terminologies or the language — how do you
do that? Like, if you have to simplify a scientific
or technical document, how would you do that?>>I think it starts with, again, knowing
your audience. It sounds like you have a very specific audience
in mind already here. I think firstly… Like, huh? Sorry about that.>>Explain to Mirabai what’s going on.>>The screen just went off? And the screen just went on. MIRABAI: Okay? Everything okay?>>Yeah, we’re okay. So… I would say start off with the easy. Which is: Make sure that it’s formatted well
and that the fonts are readable. And then from there, what’s being done at
the World Bank now, which has a lot of very complicated econ terminology — economics
terminology — is they’ll say things like: Don’t have run-on sentences. If you are saying two points in a sentence,
do it in two sentences and don’t say: We are going to achieve X, Y, Z goal, and we’re going
to achieve A, B, C goal! Just say we’re going to achieve X, Y, Z goal,
period. We’re going to achieve A, B, C goal. Period. And then try not to string lots of technical
terms together. I see this happen with business analysts a
lot. Is they’ll say things like… Oh my gosh. I’m forgetting. But this, this, this, and that are concatenated
terminologically together. You can maybe get away with terminologically. You can’t get away with concatenated. You should say “put together”. But try not to string together lots of technical
words or science words or profession-specific words. It’s important to have them put apart. And that’s also something that’s being discussed
a lot in academia right now. People with cognitive disabilities also become
professors, and it’s frustrating for everyone, but especially for professors with cognitive
disabilities when you have an academic paper that is all theoretical terms. The New York Times used to have a bad writing
contest, and they could have also done it as the inaccessible writing contest. I think the winning sentence one year had
94 words, but only one verb. Any other questions? In the back?>>Two parts. First part: Have you found that there are
any technology tools that are useful for you or for writers to use in the web world, to
understand cognitive accessibility or to assist them in making things accessible to people
with cognitive disabilities? And two, how do you find political buy-in
for making things accessible for cognitive disability? What tools do you use for that?>>I’ll address the first one first. One of the apps I showed, two of them — readable.io
and Hemingway App — will actually analyze a text and tell you the grade reading level,
with the idea of grade 6 or grade 4 being important for certain information, rewriting
it actually in that tool and seeing what comes up is really helpful. I also watched a lot of YouTube videos by
people with cognitive disabilities talking about how they approach the world, just to
get an idea of what sort of language are they using and what sort of language should I start
using to speak in that same way? Something else that’s really also useful — and
it doesn’t even necessarily have to be someone with cognitive disabilities talking specifically
about the cognitive disability, but talking about what they actually do every day. Because people with cognitive disabilities
have complicated lives like the rest of us. I have a specific hobby that may be too embarrassing
to talk about here, but there are a lot of people on the autism spectrum who have somewhat
limited vocabularies that are also into this hobby, and it’s been interesting for me in
the past few years, working in accessibility during the day and reading their forum posts
at night and sort of looking at the language that they’re using and how they use it, and
how the language is very, very simple, but also gets the points across, and then taking
that language and thinking about it at work. So instead of saying: Get started… Start. Political buy-in. So political buy-in is complicated, because
it’s not quite as clearcut a left-wing or right-wing issue, as are many other things. A lot of the initial efforts to include people
with cognitive disabilities in a community were not started by liberals or progressive
people. They were started by evangelical Christians. And many of the most inaccessible spaces I’ve
seen and many of the most inaccessible spaces according to many folks with much more experiences
are spaces on the left. Bernie Sanders, for example, got completely
ripped apart by many people with cognitive disabilities for having very inaccessible
speeches, and so did Hillary. And even when I was volunteering for Hillary,
I definitely found that some of the materials were too complicated. And some of it’s just taking time and saying
— you know, people with cognitive disabilities vote too. And then some of it is speaking with the different
political aims. So, for example, although after this election,
I’m not so sure how this applies — previously with a lot of cognitive disabilities, you
could use very religious talk, if you were able to do that, to get certain buy-in. Talking about children of God, or everyone
created in the divine image — really can get you a lot of buy-in from evangelical Christians
or, from my experience, orthodox Jews. And then on the left, also talking in specific
left wing terms. You know, I think including people with cognitive
disabilities is a very progressive thing, and even a very left wing thing. And many left wing spaces especially, many
Marxist and Communist spaces, are not necessarily accessible and use very highfalutin language. And this is the perfect application of from
each according to his own, to each according to his need — that’s also a very accessible
thing. But it depends on context. Even though I’m a pretty left-wing guy, I
have to say the right-wing, before about three years ago, was way better. But with the advent of… Coming back of a lot of eugenics and with
the advent of a certain head of state… It’s really kind of been scaled back, and
we’re kind of… Gone back to saying like… Oh, this is actually important. Whereas, say, during the Bush era, and I can’t
believe I’m saying this… W was actually really good about including
people with cognitive disabilities, because he got it explained to him from a religious
perspective. I think really the political buy-in just depends
so much on where you’re getting it. In Israel and South Africa, which are places
I’ve spent a lot of time, it’s in the… In Israel, it’s very much a thing where it’s
like… Oh, these are also Jews. These are also children of God. These are also created in God’s image. We should include people with cognitive disabilities. In South Africa, it’s: We did not fight for
people with cognitive disabilities to still be excluded from our society. I don’t know what it’s like in other countries. Any other questions? Well, thank you very much! It was a small live audience! But I know that there are a lot of people
watching, and I know tomorrow morning there are gonna be a lot of other people watching
in other places, so thank you! (applause) Okay. I’m going to disconnect now.>>Mirabai, I’m gonna… Keep talking for a second. So if you would keep this laptop running… We have a space. We should be out of here by 9:00. So if you want to hang out for a bit longer,
you’re welcome to. There are drinks in the back, and… There are drinks in the back. So help yourself. And I also wanted to just reiterate our thanks. I’m gonna speak in Sign Language. Thank you, SSB BART, and thank you, Thoughtbot. Thank you, Mirabai and Joly, and thank you,
Jonathan Katz, for speaking tonight. Thanks to you all too. (applause)>>We’ll be closing the captions now.


  1. Sara Liss

    June 8, 2017 at 9:04 pm

    For government staff operating on social media. Be VERY careful about using the new Facebook backgrounds for status updates. The color contrast is less intense than what best practices would suggest. It's a lot easier to see black text on a white background, or white text on a white background, than white text on a bright purple background. Also, backgrounds may run on a gradient, meaning that they'll have colors rippling from light to dark as you go from one corner of the text box to the other. When
    words in a single color are posted on a gradient, people start reading your webpages but might not be able to finish them. It'll be like someone shutting off all the lights in the room mid-word.

    Facebook backgrounds and similar features are social media are great. But if you want to make them accessible, try typing up what your original post said and any images you posted with it, and posting the summary of your original post as the first comment.

    The self-advocacy community uses this method to share images from cat photos to tumblr screenshots with people with visual impairments. You can get around communication barriers as long as you're willing to be creative.

  2. Alice McGowen

    June 29, 2017 at 3:29 pm

    Does anyone have contact info for Jonathan? would love to talk to him about writing Disaster Preparedness info for Social Media.

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