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Madeline Svengsouk's picture

My favorite article this week was the one on cognitively accessible language and why it's important in academia. Accessible language is not just important for neurodivergent folks, but also for people who aren't familiar with the field or those who simply don't identify as an academic. Especially when those people are the ones who the literature discussses, it's unfair to make them "wade through walls of jargon in order to read about themselves". As Elizabeth Grace says, for those trying to change the norm around academic literature, it can be extremely difficult to get published when marked as not being a legitimate member of the field. This makes me think about how college students are trained in the way of "expertise", thereby perpetuating the issue. Often times, writing in the most extravagant, flowery way is conflated with good writing. I'm definitely guilty of trying to use to most complex words and field-specific language to make myself seem more knowledgable aka credible than I am. What can we do to shift the idea that you have to sound like a peer reviewed journal article to be percieved as smart? Even more interesting to me were the comments on this article, many of which valiantly attempted to defend academia. 

- To foreclose on technical language is in fact to deny that an area of inquiry is complex, to over-simplify, and to constrain discussion to an artificial (and capricious) boundary of “accessibility.”

- it definitely sounds like you’re trying to constrain the way that people write. It looks like you’re establishing a normative standard.

- Don’t paint us–people with disabilities, poor people–with one brush. Don’t assume our capacities for us, don’t assume that we need or want simplification. We’re not children or idiots.

There's a lot to unpack here. It's true that complex writing has it's place and allows for new ideas to come forth, but it also isn't a necessity. Why is it that whenever someone tries to argue the case of accessibility, people feel like it's an attack on the subject at hand? Do we think that pushing academic writing to use more inclusive language makes asumptions that some neurodivergent people are incapable of understanding complex academic literature? 


ekoren's picture

First of all, thank you for pointing out the comments section! It didn't cross my mind to look there, and there really is so much to unpack. In response to the particular comments you've pulled out, I have several thoughts. From a scientific perspective, I fully believe that the ability to effectively communicate complicated ideas so that anyone can understand them is not just a social justice pursuit from the perspective of academic gatekeeping, but can also directly lead to things like policy changes that might not otherwise happen purely because of inaccessibility. In other words, making academia accessible doesn't just allow more people to participate in academia, but can also lead to concrete, direct changes in many other areas of life. Therefore, criticism that technical language is required, in my opinion, is demonstrably false. For example: I am working on research that is attempting to provide and evaluate intervention methods for relationally aggressive urban youths in 4th grade. I am also working on anti-bullying research for girls in Philly public schools. (Interestingly, the "simplified" sentence might actually be more descriptive, replacing the vague "urban" modifier with the more specific "Philly public schools".) By being able to describe my work in a more accessible way, I can increase the feeling of relevancy for folks hearing about the research. (Relational aggression isn't necessarily something everyone has experienced but bullying certainly is). 

From a disabilities studies perspective, I am imagining my sister who probably would still struggle to read the simplified language of the original post and would likely be unable to debate in the comments. It is not inherently good or bad to use complex language, however, it is absolutely more inclusive to use less complex language. While I understand that not every disabled or poor person will struggle with complicated academic language (and many able-bodied, non-poor people will), dismissing attempts at accessibility because of pride feels, frankly, selfish. I am wondering how people like my sister can be included in these types of conversations without resorting to condescension, and I am wondering how we determine what is accessible "enough". (How can "everyone" gain access to academia when the needs of "everyone" are so diverse and nuanced? Is it impossible to provide access to everyone? Does everyone want or need access to everything?)