The Life-Altering Importance Of Plain Language

Boy on a BusOne day recently, somewhere in the US, a preschool boy was left on the bus after the morning ride to school for six hours, on his birthday. He was clear-eyed and quiet when he was found, still buckled into his seat, by his teachers. He may have had an accident with no access to the bathroom for that long. He must have wondered if anyone would ever find him.

He didn’t realize the reason he’d been left behind was because his teacher didn’t count the children properly as they came off the bus and left the school, and that neither of his bus monitors or bus drivers checked the bus thoroughly before driving off. The hair-raising incident was reported to his parents, the local child welfare authority, and law enforcement, and it threw into harsh focus the importance of accountability to a simple bit of language.

What bit of language were those staff members accountable to? In this case it was a clear Federal standard that no child be left alone or unsupervised while under the care of the preschool program’s staff. Although the standard sounds clear to us, its practice requires its understanding: that an entire system needed to be built and implemented based on it in order to keep children safe.

The standard meant that if a child was not counted among the rest of the children, the list should have been compared to the bus monitor’s list.

It meant that if a child walked down the hall to the bathroom, a teacher’s eyes should be on him all the way in and all the way out.

It meant that in class sizes as large as 17 squirmy, cranky, vibrant three-year-olds, one pair of eyes is not sufficient: at least two are required to keep track.

Yet here is a case in which a group of people well aware of that standard were forced to learn its meaning the hard way. How hard? The program could be facing a lawsuit from the child’s parents.  It could cost some of the employees their jobs. It could have left a little boy permanently scarred.

President Obama Signing the Plain Writing Act of 2010
President Obama Signing the Plain Writing Act of 2010

I read quality control reports for a nation-wide, Federally funded program every day, and the above-reported emergency situation is still just as frightening to me as it was when I first read it. I was pleased to read in a previous post of Michelle’s that the signing of the Plain Writing Act has mobilized certain sectors of the federal government to plan massive language changes to the written rules governing so many for so long.

In reading the reports, I’ve found that the most common excuse a responsible employee or contracted employee gives for not following a rule is ignorance. As sophomoric as that sounds, I empathize with it. The standards of the program I work for use language whose meanings and consequences are argued sometimes for months by lawyers on the same team. That points to a serious gap in what the standards read and how they are understood by those expected to implement them.

With clear communication comes unanimous understanding, better plans for implementation, and fewer excuses for noncompliance. Said plainly, no little boy should ever be left alone on a bus

Shakirah Dawud is  the Deliberately Effective Copywriter and Editor behind Deliberate Ink. You can read her Deliberately Delicious Blog, follow her on Twitter (@ShakirahDawud) and get more info about her and her work at her website. (I happen to think she’s Deliberately Fabulous!)


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