Plain language, accessibility, and inclusive communications
By: the Government of Canada Communications Community Office with excerpts from Canada.ca
What is plain language?
According to the International Plain Language Federation, “Communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.”
The purpose of a plain-language approach in written communications is to convey information that the audience needs to know in a way that they can easily understand. It should not be confused with an oversimplified, condescending style. Rather, you can save your audience time and effort by using well-known and proven techniques, including the following:
- choosing words that the audience knows
- using short and clear sentence and paragraph structures
- organizing and presenting material clearly and logically
- designing and structuring the document according to the audience’s needs
Presenting information using plain language practices will help your target audiences to clearly understand your intended message. Writing content at a reading level above grade 8 can make it difficult for many people to understand.
Why is plain language important?
The Government of Canada’ Directive on the Management of Communications emphasizes that plain language is to be used in all communications with the public. The Directive indicates that one of the many requirements of the department’s head of communications is to ensure that communications products and activities are written in plain language.
The Canadian Style elaborates further, explaining that “The Government of Canada calls for plain language to be used in its communications with the public: The obligation to inform the public includes the obligation to communicate effectively. Information about government policies, programs and services should be clear, objective and simple, and presented in a manner that is readily understandable. Messages should convey information relevant to public needs, use plain language and be expressed in a clear and consistent style.”
Examples of communication products that should use plain language are web articles, social media posts, public service announcements, and news releases, to name a few. Exceptions do exist and should reflect the audience literacy levels.
The following excerpt from the Canada.ca Content Style Guide explains why it’s so important to write in plain language:
- Writing in plain language doesn't mean over-simplifying or leaving out critical information. Using plain language actually makes critical information accessible and readable for everyone.
- By writing plainly and simply, you:
- increase the chances that people will find, read and understand your information from any device
- make your information more accessible to people with disabilities
- allow people who are reading your information on a small screen to see essential information first
- save resources when editing and translating your text
- improve task completion and cuts costs by, for example, reducing enquiries
Accessibility is about creating communities, workplaces, and services that allow everyone to participate fully in society without barriers. Accessibility also means providing access to information. If government communications are not accessible, then they are not responsive to the public’s diverse information needs.
Accessibility barriers can result in excluding persons from participating, engaging in and accessing important programs and employment opportunities in the public service. As such, it is essential that public servants work with accessibility experts and consult those with lived experience to develop inclusive tools that help serve all Canadians equally.
The Government of Canada adopted the Accessible Canada Act in 2019 and is now working to making Canada barrier-free by January 1, 2040. This involves identifying, removing, and preventing barriers in federal jurisdictions for persons with disabilities. The Accessibility Strategy for the Public Service of Canada is an important step in enabling the Government of Canada to show leadership by setting and meeting high standards of accessibility in its policies, programs, and services to all Canadians.
Equity, diversity and inclusion
Governments are responsible for contributing to the greater good and building a society that is fair and respectful of all individuals. A diverse and inclusive public service that can harness its employees’ backgrounds, talents, and perspectives is essential to building a better, more productive, and innovative Canada. Federal organizations such as the Anti-Racism Secretariat, situated in the Department of Canadian Heritage, work across all departments to address racism and discrimination.
Equity is the principle of considering people's unique experiences and differing situations, and ensuring they have access to the resources and opportunities that are necessary for them to attain just outcomes. Equity aims to eliminate disparities and disproportions that are rooted in historical and contemporary injustices and oppression.
Diversity means the variety of identities found within an organization, group or society. Diversity is expressed through factors such as backgrounds, culture, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, age, language, education, physical abilities and disabilities, family status, socio-economic status, skills, perspectives, and experiences that are representative of Canada’s current and evolving population.
Inclusion means the practice of using proactive measures to create an environment where people feel welcomed, respected and valued, and to foster a sense of belonging and engagement. This practice involves changing the environment by removing barriers so that each person has equal access to opportunities and resources and can achieve their full potential. It also includes people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those who have physical or mental disabilities and members of minority groups. Inclusive language is a means of communication used to treat people with respect, and that involves using words and expressions that are not considered discriminatory or offensive, and that do not imply the exclusion or stereotyping of particular groups of people.
Public service employees interact with and touch the lives of the Canadian population every day, in every part of the country and around the world, through an array of services and programs. In addition to meeting its service and program mandates, the public service can leverage the diversity of Canada’s population to develop a workplace where individual distinctions are supported as valuable in improving the public service.
There is a lot of work being done to support a more diverse and inclusive public service. However, there is far more action to be taken to break down the systemic barriers that Indigenous people, racialized people, and other groups face in the workplace. To foster greater diversity, inclusion, and accessibility in the public service, the Government of Canada focuses on the following areas:
- generating and publishing data for a more accurate picture of representation gaps;
- increasing the diversity of senior leaders in the public service;
- ensuring the right benchmarks for diversity;
- addressing systemic barriers; and
- increasing engagement and awareness about diversity and inclusion.
As Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) issues have come to the forefront in the wider society and across the Government of Canada, communicators are being tasked with creating key messages and products on these pertinent matters. The Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Communications Network (accessible only on the Government of Canada network) on GCcollab, was formed to create a space for communicators who are leading EDI files to discuss strategies and tactics for managing this work.
Communicating with Indigenous communities
Effective government communicators build inclusivity and accessibility into their work. They commit to the Call to Action on Anti-Racism, Equity, and Inclusion in the Federal Public Service and advance reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Understanding how to communicate respectfully with Indigenous communities is foundational to building sustainable and healthy relationships. You must be mindful of your conscious and unconscious biases. Listen first, and exercise patience. Reconciliation is a lifelong and intergenerational journey.
Communicating with Indigenous communities involves building trust and focusing on elevating and supporting communities to build communications capacity. This gives government messages added credibility and likely extends their reach. This approach also redefines the relationship between government communicators and Indigenous communities.
Applying the principles of accessibility, diversity, and inclusive communications
Below are some best practices and example of what accessibility, diversity, and inclusion look like in communications.
- Imagery of people reflects the diversity of different cultures and abilities in Canada. Everyone needs to see themselves in our products, either online or elsewhere.
- Captioning services, simultaneous interpretation, and sign language are provided at events.
- Imagery has descriptive text, fonts that may be difficult to read are avoided and there is no text on a background that doesn’t have enough contrast.
- Products are written in plain language, and avoid the use of jargon and acronyms.
- Public information is available in a way that is accessible to all people with disabilities.
- Alternative formats are available when needed, as described in a service standard. A service standard describes how a service is delivered. Examples of alternative formats include:
- plain language
- ASL or LSQ
- large print
- electronic formats
- Written communication should be font size Arial 14-pt. This is for emails and documents. If asked for large print, use Arial 18-pt.
- Emails and documents should not use italics or text in all capital letters.
- Colour contrasts have a ratio of 7:1.
- Pictures, videos, and graphics have descriptive text attached.
- Changes are made for those who ask for something else.
Public engagement is an important part of an effective, open, and transparent government. Engagement takes many forms—from ongoing collaboration to broad public consultation on complex issues. The Government of Canada is committed to demonstrating the principles of transparency, relevance, inclusivity, accountability and adaptability when engaging with the public, as directed in the Open Government Principle and Guidelines. Below is an excerpt from the Principle and Guidelines webpage, which offers an overview of the guiding principles for public engagement, and some questions to consider.
We communicate with Canadians about engagement opportunities. We let Canadians know the purpose of engagement and how their input will be used.
What might this look like?
- We co-create engagement processes with stakeholders.
- We provide information that is accurate and timely.
- We ensure that people have sufficient time to prepare and participate.
- We publish summary reports online and, when possible, input as open data.
We listen and talk to interested and affected Canadians about issues that matter to them. When we convene participants, we are clear about what is up for discussion and the scope of possible change.
What might this look like?
- We explain how an issue affects Canadians.
- We engage when there is an opportunity for the public to influence decisions.
- We connect people who have a stake in the issue with opportunities to participate.
- We promote a shared sense of purpose toward a better outcome.
We engage with people who have a range of views and perspectives that reflect the diversity within Canada. We reduce barriers to participation, whether physical, cultural, geographical, linguistic, digital, or other. We offer a variety of channels and methods through which to engage.
What might this look like?
- We engage in a variety of locations.
- We provide clearly written information in both official languages.
- We provide information in alternative formats and additional languages.
- We design processes with the target audiences in mind.
- We adapt to the participants’ needs and preferences.
- We go where the conversations are happening.
- We listen without judgment.
- We build and sustain relationships.
We commit to sharing what we hear from participants. We explain our decisions, including how their input was used.
What might this look like?
- We report back to participants soon after our conversations.
- We communicate and listen throughout the process.
- We commit resources to do what we say we are going to do.
- We demonstrate the value of participants’ time by showing them what has changed because they contributed.
We commit to learning and adapting our approaches accordingly. We promote a culture of engagement, consultation, and collaboration across the public service. We build on our successes, learn from our failures, and share our experiences.
What might this look like?
- We define success at the outset, and we measure and adjust.
- We try new methods and tools to determine the right fit for the context.
- We work with experts to learn from them and build capacity.
Additional learning and resources:
- Accessible Communications (accessible only on the Government of Canada network)
- Accessibility Learning Series
- Plain Language Community of Practice (accessible only on the Government of Canada network)
- Accessible Communications Community of Practice (accessible only on the Government of Canada network)
- Words Matter: Indigenous glossary (accessible only on the Government of Canada network)
- Canada.ca Content Style Guide
- Breaking down barriers: Plain Language
- Gender-based Analysis Plus
- Digital Accessibility Toolkit
- Hemingway App
- Scolarius (in French only)
- Accessible communication during COVID-19 and other emergencies: A guideline for federal organizations
- Accessible communication during COVID-19 and other emergencies: A guideline for persons with disabilities
- Accessible communications
- Accessibility Standards Canada: Guidelines for the use of images and photos
- Accessibility resources on the CCO’s GCpedia page (accessible only on the Government of Canada network)
- International Plain Language federation. (n.d.). Plain Language. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
- Government of Canada. (2015, November 15). The Canadian Style: 13 Plain Language. Termium Plus. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
- Government of Canada. (2020, February 3). Canada.ca Content Style Guide. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
- Government of Canada. (2021, December 13). Directive on the Management of Communications. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
- Government of Canada. (2021, December 21). CCO December Newsletter. Mailchimp. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
- Government of Canada. (2020, October 15). Breaking down barriers: Accessibility. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
- Government of Canada. Accessible Canada Act (S.C. 2019, c. 10). Retrieved June 23, 2022.
- Government of Canada. (2020, May 7). Table of contents: Accessibility Strategy for the Public Service of Canada. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
- Government of Canada. (2018, January 9). Building a Diverse and Inclusive Public Service: Final Report of the Joint Union/Management Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
- Government of Canada. (2021, June 23). Building a Foundation for Change: Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy 2019–2022. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
- Government of Canada. (2022, July 18). IRCC Anti-Racism Strategy 2.0 (2021-2024) – Glossary. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
- Government of Canada. (2022, March 31). Guide on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Terminology. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
- Government of Canada. (2020, November 20) Breaking down barriers: Inclusion. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
- Government of Canada. (2021, November 23). Diversity and inclusion areas of focus for the public service. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
- Government of Canada. (n.d.). Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Communications Network. GCcollab. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
- Government of Canada. (2022, June 23). Delivering on Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
- Government of Canada. (2021, November 26). Call to Action on Anti-Racism, Equity, and Inclusion in the Federal Public Service. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
- Government of Canada. (2021, September 9). #ProtectOurElders – Creating Pandemic Communications Partnerships. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
- Government of Canada. (2019, August 10). Policy on Communications and Federal Identity. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
- Government of Canada. (2020, November 23). Making communications accessible in the Government of Canada. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
- Government of Canada. (2013, August 5). A Way with Words and Images: Suggestions for the portrayal of people with disabilities. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
- Government of Canada. (2019, May 27). Principles and Guidelines. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
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