Migration, Disability, and Plain Language [MSc guest blog]

Published 30 September 2016 / By Jonathan Paul Katz

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This blog is part of our MSc in Migration Studies guest blog series: Viewing Life Through the Migration Lens: experiences and thoughts post-MSc

When I completed my master’s dissertation at Oxford, I thought that I had completed the most difficult writing I would ever do in my life. Fresh with my MSc in one hand and a job offer in another, I came to a position with...far more difficult writing ahead of me. Except in this case, I was not explaining the sociology of internet comments or race and nostalgia among White South African expatriates in high-level academic writing. Instead, I had to translate complex legal regulations into simple, direct English, at the reading level of a typical twelve-year-old, which could be easily translated into other languages and usable by people with cognitive and/or physical disabilities. I had to write in plain language - and that, after years in the academy, is a more difficult task than it seems. But I learned - and realized how important the ease of language is when we discuss migration. One can convey complex ideas in simple, commonly-understood terms; this is the essence of “plain language.”

Plain language may seem boring, too every-day to discuss the complexities of migration or providing services for disabled people. We may even be accustomed, as many in the social sciences are, to hiding plain language, lest we seem to submit to one or another political agenda. Simplicity is not important to our analysis of the societies around us, it seems. Yet the opposite is true: plain language is essential to discussing the everyday lives of migrants, people with disabilities, and migrants with disabilities - especially in how they interact with local governments.

After completing the MSc Migration Studies programme at Oxford, I began to work as a civil servant in my hometown of New York. In my job, I help write information on municipal, state, and federal laws and regulations for the city government website, and I make sure that these pages are usable by people with disabilities. I also help make new tools for the website so that people can find and use information on regulations. The page is primarily intended for people who run or work in small businesses - especially restaurants, stores, and other everyday establishments. This job initially seems to be somewhat “separate” from migration. However, much of the primary audience of the site - including those with disabilities (more on that later) - comprises migrants. It is immigrants who are starting and maintaining businesses in New York, who need health and safety signs for restaurants and licensure as engineers. These regulations have to be explained in plain, clear language - both for the benefit of the native-born and those who are “newcomers.” I have to think about this need and this group of migrants with every word I write.

In addition, in New York, nothing is separate from migration. Two and a half million residents of the city - about one out of three New Yorkers - were born outside of the United States, and many of those born in the United States - including myself - are the children of international migrants, or have migrated themselves. Half of New Yorkers speak a language other than English at home - including significant groups of people born in the United States. The city is a major centre for several diasporas: the Jewish, Chinese, Korean, Dominican, Russian and Ecuadorian ones are perhaps most prominent. Even second- and third-generation immigrants in these communities may be primarily Spanish-, Russian-, Chinese-, or even Yiddish-speaking. The city government provides essential documents in six to sixteen languages other than English, depending on the agency, and some sort of interpretation is available for forty languages. Then, of course, New York and the surrounding region attract hundreds of thousands of internal and international migrants annually; these people have varying degrees of familiarity with the city. Providing useful and usable information in this context is a uniquely challenging task.

In addition, all this information must be made and distributed in ways usable by people with disabilities. A “disability” is any physical, mental, or cognitive condition that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Disabilities are addressed through accommodations that ensure accessibility of services, structures, or programs. For information, accessibility can take many forms: for websites, information must be formatted for the screen-reader software often used blind people or the special controls used by those who do not have typical hand function. Videos should be captioned for Deaf and hard-of-hearing people, and the colour choices on visual material should be usable by people who are colour-blind. Checking that websites are accessible on these grounds alone is hugely important. But one aspect is often forgotten: information must be usable by people with cognitive disabilities. This requirement necessitates a certain type of writing: direct, clear, and understandable by people who think in different ways. Thus plain language is important. One cannot be indirect or flowery. Even for those with other disabilities, this practice is helpful: a screen-reader user might be frustrated by lines of “fluff,” whilst many Deaf people who use sign language approach written English as a second language.

This challenge of accessibility is closely tied to migration: many migrants are themselves disabled, many more have family members who are. Even able-bodied migrants need accessibility. After all, anyone can become disabled at any point in their lifetime. This fact applies to migrants too, and certainly has to migrants in New York. No statistics on migrants with disabilities are readily available, but assuming that migrants experience disability at the same rate of the general population, five hundred thousand migrants with disabilities - physical, cognitive, or mental illness - live in the city. Once you count second-generation migrants, the number of people at the intersection between immigration and disability reaches well over a million. Despite ableist policies by the American and other Western governments that limit avenues for migration by people with disabilities, thousands of migrants who are disabled come to New York City every year. In addition, hundreds of thousands of elderly migrants in New York, many of whom have limited or no ability in English, are now living with disabilities that developed as they have aged.

Plain language in this context becomes an essential tool for providing services. Plain language allows for as many people as possible to understand, comprehend, and process what is written in line with their ability. Everyone, of course, benefits from clearly written information. For people with disabilities and for migrants with disabilities, this clarity helps ensure access to important health care, safety, or legal services, receiving identification documents, or finding opportunities for education and employment. In my job, where I write legal information for small businesses, the people who gain from simpler language are workers and employers, some of whom may be migrants and may have disabilities. Complex language, in effect, would deny access to key services. And, indeed, it does: one common complaint in New York - and elsewhere - is that services or rules are presented in completely incomprehensible language. And despite best efforts, the cycle continues: language is considered too “informal,” or we wish to sound “proper”...and the whole point of the document is lost.

I have now demonstrated how plain language is an everyday consideration in the lives of migrants, particularly those with disabilities. How do we, as students of migration, work with plain language? One way is obvious: we can simplify our academic writing. Migration research is incredibly important for understanding and changing modern society, and has a lot to offer outside the academy. However, the often impenetrable language - difficult even for insiders - of research on migration creates a barrier between those who study migration and those who could stand to benefit from their work - governments, organizations, and migrants themselves.

Plain language - or its opposite - is also an object of study. How does a migrant’s ability to comprehend the language she encounters from governments, businesses, and other organizations inform her experience of migration? How does language act as a tool of power, and how does it convey identity? What does plain language undo in the way we speak and write about migration? What does language that is not plain do? And how do all of these aspects of plain language colour the experience of migrants with disabilities? These are all valid avenues for study that can produce quite important results.

Finally, we can stop using complex language as a measure of value in the study of migration. We have been trained in the academy - even if we are now no longer in it - to use the formality of a paper’s language as indicative of its value and usefulness. Yet we all know that bad research is written in academic language. But what about the inverse? Useful knowledge about migration - often by the subjects of study themselves - may be packaged in plain, informal, or unprofessional language. I myself learned so much about disability and information access by reading material written by people with Down’s syndrome, people who are blind, and people who are Deaf themselves. These materials were written in plain language - and were far more valuable than the complex academic studies I sometimes encountered. In the academy and outside it, the same practice of valuing plain language material applies to migration. It may be uncomfortable to change what you research, what you cite. It may feel strange. It may make your research “different.” But if we are to value plain language, we have to do so in practice.

So let’s do that.

Jonathan Paul Katz completed the MSc Migration Studies at Oxford in 2015, when he co-organized the cohort’s trip to Rabat, Morocco. He works as a civil servant in New York City.

For more on plain language