Event review: Access to information: The role of editors

Written by Stephanie Warner; copy edited by Meagan Kus

Recap of EAC-BC’s branch meeting on November 19, 2014

How can we, as editors and writers, make information accessible for a diverse range of readers?

The learning topic of EAC-BC’s November monthly meeting was Access to information: The role of editors. The lively and engaging panel discussion—moderated by Shana Johnstone, principal of Uncover Editorial + Design—focused on how communicators deal with their audiences’ particular challenges.

The panelists were clear that in order to serve their audiences, they must first know about their audiences.

Sheryl Gray, a communications consultant with TransLink and mother of a son with Down Syndrome, suggested that we “get off on the right foot with people and understand who they are.”

Sheryl does freelance editing work with the Down Syndrome community. Traditionally, information has been targeted at caregivers. However, Sheryl has learned that many members of the community are now reading the information. This means she needs to adapt her writing and editing to their reading style.

Sheryl no longer assumes that people are reading large chunks of material or that they are following along from beginning to end. She suggested using a lot of headings, continually giving people context, and not assuming that they remember what they are reading. For example, people with Down Syndrome often have poor short-term memory. Thus, there is real need for providing more context.

William Booth, a literacy outreach coordinator in the downtown eastside, works in a neighbourhood with “multiple populations with multiple challenges.” Many of his clients have not had structured educational opportunities. Yet, most information directed at them is written for people with formal education. For example, William just went through a training program about Bill C-36, the new legislation affecting sex-trade workers. The problem: people didn’t understand the language that was used. He said that for his audiences, typeface, spacing, highlighting, and terminology are probably the most critical to a text being understood.

Heidi Nygard’s audiences have formal education but require alternatives to print. Heidi is the alternate format collections coordinator at the Crane Library at UBC, which serves print-impaired readers. According to Heidi, it’s a good idea to think about how your text could be translated into an alternate format. At the Crane Library, printed materials are turned into PDFs and then read with JAWS, a text-to-speech program. Plain text is especially important when we work with web copy or coding. Even basic HTML headings get read aloud.

There are many ways we can lose important textual information just in the way it’s coded and edited. To illustrate, Heidi told us about a student who had struggled with a book of poetry. Heidi learned that the way the book had been edited meant that the poet’s organization of information had disappeared. Combined with line numbers and headings, etc., left in, the book was a “surreal, abstract jumble of words.”

Accessible communication tips
The panelists offered the following tips on how to make your communication more accessible.

Don’t assume that people:

  • read large chunks of material
  • follow along from beginning to end
  • remember what they are reading

Do:

  • use plain text
  • use an easy-to-read typeface
  • use spacing
  • use a lot of headings
  • use easy-to-understand terminology
  • give context
  • highlight ideas
  • keep HTML simple
  • understand who your readers are—talk to people in the community

Want to learn more?
The panelists recommended the following as great resources:

  • Decoda Literacy Solutions is a province-wide literacy organization in British Columbia.
  • The BC Libraries Cooperative works with the National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS) to provide an online repository for digital print materials. On the NNELS site, there is a section of tutorials on the basics of creating alternate format materials.
  • SNOW is an initiative of the Inclusive Design Research Centre at the Ontario College of Art and Design University that focuses on inclusive education and learning.

Missed the meeting? Download the audio file (EAC members only).

Stephanie Warner is currently volunteering with Community Plain Language Services Corp. She has a law degree and a TESOL certificate. Her past work experience has ranged from making legislation to teaching new immigrants how laws are made.

Meagan Kus is a freelance copy editor and proofreader with an 18-year background in arts administration.

Image by Bigstock.

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