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  4. Accessible Plain Language at DHS: Transforming Thinking and Empowering Action

Accessible Plain Language at DHS: Transforming Thinking and Empowering Action

Release Date: September 20, 2023

Language significantly impacts our thinking and can be a powerful tool for inspiring action. What we say to our customers matters, and how we say it impacts understanding. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) wants customers to get the information they need and use it meaningfully. Accessible plain language ensures customers, and their experiences, are centered throughout the various touchpoints they have with DHS. The factors of accessible plain language are:

  • People: You, me, our nation
  • Equity: Consistent and systematic treatment of all individuals in a fair and impartial manner
  • Accessibility: Consistent and systematic inclusion and equal opportunity for persons with disabilities
  • Customer Experience: Placing people at the center of everything we do
  • Engagement: Working side by side with DHS partners

There are many resources on effective ways to communicate in plain language, but our favorite is the recent Plain Language Standard put forth by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). We’re excited about this standard because they’re so clearly customer-centric.

But you don’t have to read the Standard – we have captured them for you here. And we’ve included ideas and tips for implementing them in your accessible plain language practice. When we use plain language:

  1. Customers get what they need – it is relevant
    Knowing the customer is the first principle of customer-centric communication. We want to make sure that customers’ interactions with DHS are equitable, accessible, culturally responsive, inclusive, and anti-racist. This means we all need to get to know who our customers are beyond what they look like in aggregated data in a spreadsheet. In the Customer Experience Directorate, we are committed to understanding the needs of our diverse audiences. For example, do they have disabilities? How’s their understanding of English? Are they fully able and fluent, but they’re challenged because they have just been through a crisis?
  2. Customers find what they need – it is findable
    You put the information on your website or in your notifications, but do your customers recognize they are in the right place? After identifying your customer using the first principle in the Standard, consider accessibility, cognitive load of absorbing content, or how the information is designed and structured. These factors and more impact a customer’s ability to find content. Create clear, concise, and conversational language that matches the words that your customers use. Take it a step further, and test content through usability testing.
  3. Customers understand what they find – it is understandable
    Content needs to be presented in various formats, languages, and platforms to be accessible and meaningful to all audiences. Consider the background that customers come from and the context they are in when they come to the content. Then, work to build in factors that help them recognize when they have found the answers. Also, make sure the content actually answer potential questions customers have.
  4. Customers use what they need – it is usable
    When content is accessible and plain, users can act appropriately on what they find. For example, a customer successfully filling out a form because it is in their preferred language. Through the practice of accessible plain language, we can all make it possible for customers to communicate in the language they feel most comfortable using.

DHS's commitment to accessible plain language goes beyond stylistic choices. Safeguarding our homeland requires understanding language needs to deliver equitable experiences and save costs through targeted solutions for expressed customer needs. Language is a powerful tool of engagement, and we all must continuously improve accessibility in all the meanings of the word.

Last Updated: 02/08/2024
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