Recently, my friend Alastair Somerville, a really smart guy working in accessibility in the UK and I sat in a bar in Bath, England discussing the idea that vocabulary used to describe a concept could create a barrier for people less educated than myself. Alastair pointed out that the fight against homeopathy, a battle in which science minded people like me point to Avogadro’s constant (10 followed by 23 zeroes or “ten to the twenty third”) to demonstrate that homeopathic “remedies” are nothing more than water, may not be effective to people who never learned anything about chemistry in their education. A perfectly intelligent person may not understand things that I, with a terrific education, would accept as a given and I cannot reach these people due to my own inaccessible vocabulary.
To Alastair’s assertion, I simply said, “If you can’t understand this stuff, you should go to college.” On that evening, I held the assumption, without even realizing it, that somehow everyone had the same ability to learn scientific concepts as me and that those who didn’t were simply stupid or intellectually lazy.
After returning from the UK, I heard an episode of “Penn’s Sunday School,” the podcast done weekly by noted atheist, magician and comedian, Penn Jillette and a few sidekicks. In this episode, Penn talks about Opportunity Village, a non-profit in Las Vegas that works with people with severe intellectual disabilities for which he raises money. Penn talked warmly and lovingly about Opportunity Village clients and how, with good training, they can live fulfilling lives with jobs ranging from secret document destruction (these people cannot read, who better to handle documents filled with government secrets?) to working as janitors at the Las Vegas airport. More than what they can do, Penn reminded us that, indeed, these people are also humans and deserve the same dignity and respect as any other human. It’s unlikely that any Opportunity Village clients will learn much about chemistry or Avogadro’s constant but what of people with other learning disabilities, people who cannot learn in the way I did as a child with, then, a moderate vision impairment?
Next, I heard an episode of Pod Delusion, my favorite podcast and the one to which I am a regular contributor and heard a segment about jargon. In this piece, the individual telling the story had volunteered his time at a science museum at a display where visitors could look at various slides through a microscope. A woman passing by stopped to look at a slide and he explained to her that she was looking at kidney cells. The visitor asked the question, “Why do kidneys need cells?” It occurred to no one that the word “cell” would be inaccessible to one who voluntarily go to a science museum but, at least in this example, a reasonably well educated individual asked the question.
The last thing that contributed to my thoughts on this matter was a television program on Investigation Discovery (the all murder and mayhem channel) in which a college educated woman finds love with a man described as “intellectually disabled.” The talking heads on the program and its narrator used language like, “she thought she couldn’t find anyone better,” and “she sunk to such a level that such a man would be attractive to her.” They made no mention of this man’s humanity and that he and the woman had found love with each other. They literally used language to describe this unfortunate fellow that suggested that he and his love were less valuable than other than that of other humans. It was then that I realized that I held a similar prejudice. At that moment, I realized how bigoted I am toward people with differing intellectual capabilities. Yup, in my mind, smart blind people are “better” than people with intellectual disabilities.
How can people like me, science and evidence based thinkers, change our approach to become more accessible to those with different educational opportunities? People with disabilities that make traditional learning impossible? People with intellectual disabilities that make understanding the concepts even about them too complicated to grasp? Most people who have difficulty with vocabulary do not self-identify as having a disability so absolutely none of the funding and infrastructure for people with disabilities is available to address the issue.
Frankly, this is not my field and I’ve only even been thinking about the problem as an accessibility issue for a few weeks and, until the past few days, hadn’t thought it was too important. Will the “Simple English translation pages on Wikipedia be a good place to start explaining complex topics in an accessible manner? I’m highly enthused by the correspondence I’ve been having with Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, on accessibility issues but we’ve yet to discuss the accessibility of vocabulary. Perhaps, if you’re interested in working on this problem, Simple English (listed under foreign language translations on Wikipedia) would be a good place to start.
Here are some links to things I’ve mentioned above:
1. Pod Delusion, a podcast to which you should subscribe immediately, is at: www.poddelusion.co.uk.
2. Penn’s Sunday School, a podcast I enjoy a lot, is at: www.pennssundayschool.com.
3. Opportunity Village, a charity to which you might send a few bucks, is at: opportunityvillage.org
4. Homeopathy, an alternative medicine modality without any basis in actual science, evidence or with the ability to demonstrate efficacy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homeopathy.
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