Book review: communication for all

This book could not be more timely. Saavutettava viestintä (Accessible Communication) was published at the end of the year when the world shut down, everything closed, and everyone was expected to move their lives online. But going virtual and digital is easier for some than for others.

What if you can’t see or hear (well or at all)? What if you don’t speak or read the language (fluently)? What if you don’t have good internet, or a device you can access it with? What if you have all those things, but you’re physically or mentally not able (right now or ever) to use them? What if the resources are out there, but you can’t find them? What are your rights?

Language professionals think about some of these questions daily, but they don’t join up their thinking enough, and they don’t communicate with non-experts clearly enough. A lot of the content in this book was not new to me, but it was put together in a new way, combining theory and practice. In it, two dozen authors explain the latest research and share professional or personal experiences.

Four key areas are covered – equality and legal rights, everyday life, work, and society. The focus is on Finland, which is important for Finnish itself, not least because access to knowledge in your own language helps the development of that language. Together, the authors introduce a wide range of issues that apply much more broadly.

Accessible communication involves all the senses: sight, sound, and touch (even smell and taste). If you can’t communicate through one sense, you should be able to use another. You’ve probably seen superb sign-language interpreters in action, but did you know about haptic, hybrid, and written interpreting? In this book, accessible service users and providers share stories that need telling, which can shape policy and practice. One chapter describes a movie night for deafblind people. Another on translating recipes from English to Finnish shows how much cultural and contextual knowledge you need to communicate accessibly. Researchers on the MeMAD project offer valuable insight into accessing audiovisual content. And comic contracts were new to me, too.

As an immigrant woman who has been on the receiving end of communication about how I should integrate and learn the language, I was most interested in the chapters about this. Easy Finnish (simple language, not the same thing as plain language) was very important for me when I moved here (I’ve written about it) and still is for many.

Did you know that 7% of people in Finland speak languages other than the national ones (Finnish and Swedish?) Regrettably, even the national languages don’t have equal status in practice, and Saami, Romani, and sign language speakers don’t have the same rights. The chapters on this issue stressed the desperate need for better resources in growing minority languages too, like Somali and Arabic. English as a lingua franca is useful – NEaT members helped write the English style guide for the Finnish Prime Minister’s Office – but only to those who speak it. Accessible communication requires training interpreters, translators, and civil servants, as the book highlights so well, but immigrants (who are or could be in all those roles) need language training first. I believe that teachers of Finnish as an additional language need the same professional recognition and resources that teachers of Finnish to “native speakers” enjoy. That term in itself is loaded; a chapter on language ideologies calls for broader concepts of what constitutes a “mother tongue”.

Technologies and the humans behind them are making communication more accessible. Machine translation and crowdsourced localization are improving, and may be the only cost-effective solution, as in humanitarian crises. But the chapters on these technologies show that people write both the programmes and the text to be communicated. Those writers and programmers need to be more diverse. And they need to share their knowledge: the terminology chapter points out that that people can only use online resources like TSK ’s if they know where to find them.

This is a lot to take in – in a short review I can’t do justice to each author’s research and experience – and different readers will be more interested in different aspects of accessible communication. But Design for All means involving everyone, and this book gives you resources to to do that. Hopefully it will change the way you think, write, translate, edit, and communicate.

So get yourself a copy of Maija Hirvonen & Tuija Kinnunen (eds.) Saavutettava viestintä: Yhyeiskunnallista yhdenvertaisuutta editstämässä (Gaudeamus 2020). If you want more training, try the Finnish Centre for Easy Language, Selkokeskus, or join the Finnish Design for All network, coordinated by Avaava. If you’re serious about this issue, why not take the Accessibility in a Digital Society study module (20 ECTS) at Tampere University: the first course starts in March 2021.

Kate Sotejeff-Wilson translates, copywrites and edits for academics at KSWtranslations, facilitates Ridge Writing Retreats, and is vice chair of NEaT.


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