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Thoughts on writing and writers

Writing clearly is not just practical, it's ethical

Consider for a moment how much of the world we navigate by reading. Did you know that 48% of Canadians have a lower than high-school level of literacy? This makes it essential to write clearly and accessibly because people should be able to understand the documents that affect their lives. From this perspective, clear writing upholds fundamental human rights. Here are four concrete examples of this.

Example 1—Imagine trying to speak up for yourself if you couldn’t understand the guidance documents

The Alberta Human Rights Commission hears from people who feel they have been treated unfairly based on race, gender, religion, sexual preference, and a number of other categories. The majority of complaints they receive come from Albertans who don’t speak English as a first language or who have a literacy or cognitive limitation. Let’s put ourselves in their shoes—what if you were being discriminated against at work? What if you struggled to understand the forms to submit a human rights complaint?

Being able to understand what you read is the right behind the right
Clear, accessible documents are essential to upholding fundamental human rights. Luckily, the Commission recognized their human-right-complaint forms were quite complex and difficult to read. With support from Wordsmith, the Commission revised them. See the complete version here.

Who can make a human rights complaint

You can make a complaint if:

  1. you have reasonable grounds for believing that the Act has been contravened (including if you believe that someone has discriminated against you);

  2. another person believes, on reasonable grounds, that the Act has been contravened and agrees that you can make a complaint on their behalf;

  3. someone has retaliated against you because you have participated in a human rights complaint or because you might participate in a complaint; or

  4. you believe someone has made a frivolous or vexatious human rights complaint against you under the Act and their intent was malicious.

See page 14 (Section C) of this guide for more information about retaliation and frivolous and vexatious complaints.

How do you make a human rights complaint?

The first step in the complaint process is to visit our website to complete the self-assessment. The self-assessment will tell you if your complaint would be likely to fall within the Alberta Human Rights Act (we call it the “Act” in the rest of this document).

Our website offers a range of information to help you understand the requirements to make a complaint and the complaint process. To submit your complaint, you will complete a Human Rights Complaint Form. Refer to this Guide as you complete the Complaint Form. If you have questions, contact the Albert Human Rights Commission’s (the Commission, we, us) Confidential Line.

Example 2—It matters to communicate policy clearly for audiences like veterans and their families

Wordsmith has done work with the federal Office of the Veterans Ombudsman, who gave us permission to share a before-and-after example we developed while working with them.

The original shows a style that is common in policy writing and government content, and it’s a bit tough to grasp. There are very important ideas here, but “insider” language makes it hard for most of us to understand. We revised this excerpt with input from the writer to make sure we got it right.

How easy are these excerpts to understand?

Before (64 words)
Complainants, stakeholders and the institutions that are the subject of the Ombud’s mandate should have a clear understanding of the fairness criteria that the Ombud will apply when investigating a complaint. Establishing what fairness means for the particular Ombud’s role is important for understanding and accountability. The meaning of fairness chosen should lend itself to assessment criteria that are objective as opposed to subjective.

After (37 words)
We have recently redefined our approach to fairness so it is easier for complainants, stakeholders and institutions to understand. Our new approach also gives us more objective criteria to measure ourselves against and helps hold us accountable.

Example 3—What if you had a learning or cognitive disability?

This is web content from a group that serves people with developmental disabilities and the people who care for them. The original is on the left, and the version Wordsmith rewrote is on the right. It’s an example of writing to better connect with the readers of the site. Notice your experience as you read each of them.

Before (Grade level 14.9)

Specialized services offer assessment, treatment and support to adults aged 18 years and over who have or are suspected of having a developmental disability. The program also supports their families, caregivers and other service providers. Specialized services help adults and their caregivers manage the challenges of daily living and develop strategies to promote a better quality of life and community participation.

Specialized services also often offer workshops and groups to people in their communities.

After (Grade level 8.8)

What are specialized supports?
Specialized support services help adults and their caregivers manage the challenges of daily living. We find ways to help you live better and build your place in the community.

We offer to assess, treat, and support adults 18 years and over who have or might have a developmental disability.

We build a sense of belonging by holding workshops and support groups for people in their own communities.

Example 4—Read this incredible decision from a judge writing to a young man who is being sentenced

This is a decision from 2015 from an Ontario court. It was a radical change in style for the judge, driven by the desire to truly communicate with the young man he was sentencing, rather than using a more conventional legal style. Here’s an excerpt, with the link to the full decision below.

[1]   Jesse Armitage is a troubled man of Aboriginal heritage who was sentenced by me a number of months ago. At the time I gave my decision, I said that I would draft and release a written decision. This is that decision.

[2]   Before I get to this, I would like to make two short comments. First of all, I want to say something about the style of this decision. For those who have read some of my past judgments, the reader may notice a change. For Jesse Armitage, I have tried to say what I wanted to say in very plain language. I believe that this is very important for judges to do in every decision. However, judges often do not do a good job of this. I would describe myself as one of the worst sinners. As lawyers first and then judges, we get used to using words that are long and complicated. This only muddies the message we are trying to say. That message is very important when it comes to passing a sentence on an offender. That the message is clear is even more important in the Gladue courtroom.

[3]   I say this because in the Gladue court at Old City Hall, accused persons who share a proud history of the first people who lived in this nation, not only have a right to be heard, but they also have a right to fully understand. Their voices are heard by the judges. And they must also know that we have heard them. I believe that the accused persons who have been in this court have had good experiences in this. This is something that they have come to appreciate. This is something they have a right to expect.

Read this whole decision.