What you didn’t know about writing for people with learning disabilities

25 October 2018

By Kerry Hogan, Norwood Social Media Editor.

It is a normal Monday morning at Norwood HQ. I pop to the kitchen to make a quick cup of tea, say hello to team members I haven’t seen for a whole two days and then sit and watch as my inbox updates with emails and calendar invites galore. I stumble across one which stands out above the rest: the subject line reads Easy Read Training. I accept with intrigue and immediately search the internet to try and discover a little more about what Easy Read actually is.

OK, research done. Now I’m really interested!

The day flies by and before I know it I’m sat at the Board Room table with a group of five colleagues from the Norwood marketing team, ready for our morning of Easy Read training with Daniel Hyams, Norwood’s Communication and Engagement Manager.

We start with the basics…

So what is Easy Read? Easy Read, Daniel explains, is a form of communication aimed at making information more accessible for people who have a learning disability. As we soon learn, there is no one size fits all method; however a combination of pictures, symbols, photographs, will give people the opportunity to learn and aims to make communication as inclusive as possible.

Why do we need to understand Easy Read? Well if this is your first meeting with Norwood, you may not know that we support vulnerable children and their families, children with special educational needs and people with learning disabilities and autism. As members of the marketing department, it is vital that we understand who we are talking to and make important information accessible to everybody.

So how is it done?  Whatever the subject or concept you are communicating, take it back to basics and keep it simple. Easy right? In reality, Easy Read doesn’t always equal easy write. When looking at Easy Read, you realise just how many assumptions you make in your day to day communications and these assumptions are exactly what you need to lose. For example, when writing about keeping your money safe, don’t make the assumption that the person looking at it understands the idea of financial safety or the importance of it. This is where the basics step in. Break it down into smaller concepts and use one image and once sentence per concept.

Here is an example of what a Norwood Easy Read Guide may look like.

Communication is for everybody. No matter how complex the learning disability is, there is no reason why steps shouldn’t be taken to make communication a two way experience. Many of the people Norwood support have communication difficulties and speech is typically the most complex form of communication. The use of photos and very simple, short sentences help greatly. This allows time to digest what is being said and allows time for a response if it is being read aloud.

The test. Daniel explains that another must of Easy Read is to load the important information at the end of the sentence. This leads us on the normally dreaded participation section of the training! He then asks us to grab a piece of paper and a pen. Oh no… not a test. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing to stress about”, says Daniel as he holds on to a piece of paper which he is careful to shield from our prying eyes. Now we are all worried and glance awkward smiles at each other.

Daniel reads out a list of about 20 words. He reads them out clearly, with at least three seconds break between each word. Now our challenge. List all the words we had just heard… gulp! I instantly start scrambling to remember what he just said. I start with the last words I heard and then I jot down a few more that I clearly remember being said. Pens down. How did I do? 11/20. Not my best, probably could have paid more attention.

We go again. Now he reads 20 new words, quickly, no gaps. I have barely had time to digest one word and he is on to the next and it’s all blurring. Again, we are asked to write the words down. Gone, literally gone. Again I remember the last few words and then I have a vague recollection of the word tea – I only remembered it because I really wanted a cup. I start making it up, better to write something than nothing right? Pens down again and we all look at each other in slight shock. 5/20.

We all did worse second time round and challenged that the list was too fast, too long and that we didn’t get time to digest it. Daniel smiles because he knows he has made a good point.

The breakthrough. For people with learning disabilities, a sentence can feel like a long list of disconnected words which don’t mean anything if simply reeled off quickly. This is what Easy Read is there for. It slows down the information, supports each sentence with a photo/symbol, and breaks it down into manageable chunks.

The takeaway. As with anything new, it takes time and practice to use the new skill with confidence. We come away with a long list of all the key things to remember when communicating with Easy Read. Here are the most essential:

  • Use a maximum of 15 words per sentence
  • Use one idea per sentence
  • Stick to one topic per page
  • Choose simple words
  • If you need to use difficult words, explain them
  • Avoid abbreviations
  • Don’t worry too much about correct grammar
  • Use full stops but no other punctuation
  • Use big, clear photos (to the left of the text)
  • Avoid pictures with busy backgrounds
  • Don’t just use a picture for the sake of it. It has to be identifiable
  • Include a list of contents for longer pieces
  • Consider how a family member or support worker may support someone with an Easy Read publication

This list isn’t exhaustive, but is a good place to start when creating Easy Read materials.

The training finishes and we all thank Daniel for his time. We have a new found appreciation of Easy Read and for all of our dedicated support workers who live and breathe person-centred communication every single day.