Frontlines: One of our new team of practitioner columnists gives her take on the use of plain english

I went on holiday to Bulgaria recently. My friend Sarah insisted on learning the Cyrillic alphabet, and was disappointed when we didn’t need it in Golden Sands, which is like Skegness on speed.

However, when we journeyed into the far reaches of the Pirin Mountains we found the menus in the dimly lit taverns to be incomprehensible. We wished we had tried a bit harder with the language, if only to avoid eating wolf, which the locals seemed so keen on shooting and putting on the menu. It reminded me too much of my old Alsatian, now sadly deceased.

I was thinking of this at work recently, when the team spent a morning discussing communication, and how we can make it clearer. As a community learning difficulties team it is important that our documents are accessible, that our language is clear and simple, that we use a plain large font, and use symbols and pictures with discretion.

This should be good practice everywhere, to encourage inclusion. Why then are British menus often as puzzling as Bulgarian ones? You don’t have to have a learning difficulty to find them hard to understand.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 states that service providers should consider making “reasonable adjustments” to the way they deliver their services, so that disabled people can use them. This should include “changing any practice, policy or procedure which makes it impossible or unreasonably difficult for disabled people to use a service”. One example given is larger, well-defined signs for people with visual impairment, but you could add to this plain language and signage for people with learning difficulties.

Someone may be able to understand “sausage and mash”, or recognise a picture of it, but they may not be aware that “pan-fried smoked Toulouse sausages with caramelised onions, a rich red wine sauce and herb pulverised tuber” is the same thing.

Access isn’t just about ramps and building regulations, it’s also about communication. And it’s not enough for workers with people with learning difficulties to put a symbols programme on their computers. On one programme you can type in “catering” and get a picture of a cat – the nearest word that it recognises – so either you would be writing gibberish, or you wouldn’t want to use that particular caterer any more than you would want to eat my old Alsatian.

Jennifer Harvey works with people with learning difficulties

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