Plain language and social services

As I continue with outreach and client counseling, I’m getting a more and more vivid image of what it would be like to be a person stuck in poverty, trying to get along in Brooklyn. Let me tell you: it is pretty hopeless shit, especially if you’re a non-English speaker or under-educated adult.

I don’t want to get all complain-y, so let’s assume that it’s OK that the class system is unfair because it makes global capitalism work. And the racism and hatred that immigrant folk experience, let’s just call that par for the course. It is, let’s say, pretty cool that the government provides some services for working class folk, you know, in case they’re ever down on their luck.

Here’s the complaint: If you’re reading at a 4th grade level, there is NO possible way you can navigate the system of public benefits that is (barely) in place to help people like you.

I have this client who has a learning disability. Yesterday I accompanied him to an orientation for VESID (Vocational Education Services for Individuals with Disabilities) a program run by New York State. Its goal is to help adults with disabilities find a job and keep it. The first step to receiving services from them is to sit through an hour long orientation in a cavernous room with soul sucking florescent lights and 30 other desperate people. You watch a corny video. Then a nondescript man with a monotone voice drones on about all the procedural ins and outs for 45 minutes. I went to an elite college and majored in English and I barely got the gist of it.

How is this supposed to work?

Al Gore addressed this problem during his Vice Presidential term when he served as the chair of the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN)

For a famous exploration of the political uses of language in modern society, check out George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” (It’s not as good as my favorite of his essays, “In Defense of English Cooking”)

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