Plain Language = Access for All

by Jolene Sharp, Chief Public Information Officer, TN Council on Developmental Disabilities

If you’ve spent much time with the Council on Developmental Disabilities in the past couple years, you’ve probably heard us mention “plain language.” Maybe you’ve wondered: What exactly is plain language? And what does it have to do with disability?

What is plain language?

First, a definition: defines plain language as “communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it.”

Let’s expand on that.

  • Plain language makes sure people can find and act on information.
  • Plain language is about both the words you use and how you organize information.
  • Plain language considers context and makes ideas concrete. It makes sure your meaning is clear.
  • Plain language meets the audience where they are. It helps them know why information matters to them.

Why does plain language matter?

The disability services system is big and complex. How big and how complex? I’ll give you a little context.

You may remember that every U.S. state and territory has a council on developmental disabilities like ours. Every 5 years, all councils do what’s called a “comprehensive review and analysis of needs.” We did this last in 2021.

Here’s what we learned in Tennessee:

  • There are 154 different disability services across 23 different state agencies
  • People with disabilities and families name lack of information as the second biggest barrier to accessing services. (The first was lack of services – meaning needed services don’t exist. But we often find services may exist and families don’t know about them – which brings us back to lack of information.)

It’s no wonder people find it confusing to learn about and access disability services! The Council works on solutions to help families find and access services. (That’s why we started and recently helped update TN Disability Pathfinder – our state’s one-stop center for finding disability services.) But we know it’s easy for people to get overwhelmed in a system this complex.

Information can be a barrier or a bridge.

There are many extra challenges people may face to getting information.

  • English as a second language – which may include members of the Deaf community who use American Sign Language
  • Cultural differences
  • Reading difficulty
  • Intellectual disability
  • Current or past trauma

Those of us working inside systems don’t always think about what our audience is experiencing. The information we’re sending is one piece of a bigger picture for each person we’re communicating with. In the disability community, most people are navigating more than one system. Each system has different processes and requirements. Some people are in crisis.

Plain language means taking the time to ask: Are we making this as easy as possible for the people we serve?

Making information as easy as possible is important well beyond state services. Plain language can be the difference in all kinds of access – to everything from fun and recreation to life-saving help.

Who is plain language for?

Plain language is not a special format for a specific group of people. Plain language is for EVERYONE.

We are all bombarded by information. No one has time to go digging for what they need. In fact, a modern media company has developed an entire business model around this idea. They call their formula “Smart Brevity.” It’s based on brain science that says people need to know right away what information is about and why it matters to them.

Think of the last time you used information that was clear, easy to follow, and told you exactly what you needed to know. How did you feel?

When I ask that question at plain language trainings, I hear answers like:

  • relieved
  • smart
  • respected
  • informed
  • empowered

Everyone wants to get information that’s easy to understand and act on. That’s true for people who are highly educated and those with less education. It’s true across all identities and communities.

Who should use plain language?

You guessed it: EVERYONE should use plain language! You may not think of yourself as a communicator. It might not be your job to post to social media or write articles. But we all communicate every day. Plain language can help you with:

  • Emails
  • Important conversations with a boss or coworker
  • Research reports
  • Legal contracts
  • Policy white papers
  • Event invitations
  • Trainings
  • Signs and directions
  • Any time you have information to share!

I recently drove a family member to the hospital for a medical appointment. It was a big hospital, and I hadn’t been there before. I was worried about finding the right building. I was so relieved when I pulled into the main entrance and saw easy-to-read signs showing me exactly where to go. It made a hard experience less stressful.

Another example: My son is autistic. He likes to know what to expect when we’re going to a new place. We recently got tickets to see a musical at our local performing arts center. It was a lot easier for him to be excited after he looked at a map of the venue and saw exactly where our seats were. Having clear information on the center’s website helped him enjoy an amazing experience in our community. 

Tips for using plain language

  • Keep sentences short. Give each fact or idea its own sentence.
  • Use bullet points/lists whenever possible.
  • Use clear, consistent headings.
  • Use an active, conversational tone. (For example, say “you” instead of “the person.”)
  • Understand your audience. (If you are communicating to more than one group, you might need different versions of your information.)
  • Avoid jargon and acronyms. Explain key terms.
  • Use visuals to support your meaning. (But remember alt tags/image descriptions for people with vision disabilities!)
  • Choose the simplest word.
  • If possible: Have members of your intended audience review your content and give feedback.
  • Ask framing questions:
    • Who is my audience?
    • What will they need to know in order to act?
    • What will their questions be?
    • Would this information make sense to someone who knew nothing about the subject before?

Plain language is inclusion.

The federal Developmental Disabilities Act lists inclusion as a key value for councils like ours. Too often, a lack of clear, easy to understand information is the first barrier to true inclusion. That’s why we made plain language a part of our 5-year state plan.

We’d love your help.

See confusing information about disability services? Tell us about it!

Are there disability programs or topics you want to know more about? We’d like to hear about that, too.

We can be an information bridge for the disability community.

We hope you’ll join us in making Tennessee a leader in communicating so everyone can understand and access the supports they need.


Jolene Sharp has led communications for the Council since 2019. She loves good stories, good coffee, good food, traveling, and the outdoors. She is a proud wife to her high school sweetheart and a proud mom to two school-age children with disabilities.