Information accessibility and the right to know

Thursday, Sep 28, 2017, 03:23 AM | Source: Pursuit

Keith McVilly

So what was in your letterbox this week, apart from the junk mail? I had yet another letter from my bank advising me of the ‘changed conditions of use’ for my account, a letter from my electricity supplier advising new rates and charges, an invitation to participate in the National Bowel Cancer Screening Programme, and a request from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) to respond to a postal survey asking me “if the law should be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry”?

Sitting on my couch, I work through these pieces of written information that involve making important decisions affecting my life, as well as the lives of others. It is a common enough experience.

But this isn’t so easy for all Australians.

It’s estimated that more than 7 million Australians have limited literacy. Picture: iStock

In 2013, the ABS estimated that over 7 million Australians were limited in their literacy to the most basic of everyday reading tasks. This is a very serious situation given the importance of literacy, which is defined by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as “the ability to understand, evaluate, and use and engage with written texts to participate in society, achieve one’s goals, and develop one’s knowledge and potential.”

While the importance of accessibility to information is universally agreed, what actually defines accessible information remains in contention.

On a practical level, how might my bank, electricity provider, the National Bowel Cancer Screening Programme, or the ABS, better present material to maximise its accessibility for all Australians, including those with disability?

We are currently researching what constitutes truly accessible information that allows people to make informed decisions on a range of everyday matters, and how resources like these might be better produced.

Our Accessible Information Project reviewed a range of guidelines that exist both here in Australia and overseas. The emerging consensus is that many elements combine to make information accessible, including the use of language and images, as well as the formatting of document.


Simple, everyday language is best. However, what is ‘simple and every day’ for one person might not be for another. Sentences need to be kept short, with a single idea per sentence, while also keeping punctuation simple - avoiding semicolons, colons, hyphens and too many commas.

Many guidelines recommend using active language; where the subject of the sentence performs an action rather than being the receiver of the action. And some guidelines recommend using the present tense, rather than past tense or subjunctive tense. And, as many of us would agree, most warn against the use of jargon and abbreviations.

Generally, it was recommended to write numbers as digits, not words. All the guidelines note that using percentages and large or complicated numbers can be confusing. Instead they recommended examples like using ‘1 in 10’ or ‘some’ instead of 10%, and words like ‘many’ for a large number like 3421.


For anyone trying to understand a complex idea, if text is broken into short chunks, with plenty of space between lines and paragraphs, while also using clear headings to break up information, it can help make it clear. But here it’s necessary to also consider the number of characters to a line, number of words in a sentence, or the number of pages in a document – with some guidelines suggesting sentences of 15 words or less.

Accessible information information includes use of language and images as well as the formatting of documents. Picture: iStock

Font and font size is also a consideration. Almost all the guidelines recommend non-serif fonts, such as Arial, Helvetica or Verdana, and most guidelines agree that 14 point is a good font size, though some saw the benefit in 16 point.

All guidelines stress the importance of clear, easy-to-read font and a high contrast between text and background, but the recommendations around the use of coloured text were less clear.

Structure also plays an important role here. Bullet points, boxes and bold text can be used to highlight important points, although some urge caution about the number of layers or levels of bullet points.

Most guidelines recommend the use of good quality, matt paper that is not ‘too thin’; while three guidelines specify the size of paper to be used, although they all make a different recommendation.


Big, clear images that have a direct connection with the text to which they refer can also help. And most guidelines recommend using only one type of image throughout a document.

Photos are good for showing specific people, places and things happening, and most guidelines agreed that if using photos, it is important to ensure that they are clear and without background or foreground clutter. But drawings can also help - often conveying information better than a symbol or photo.

Interestingly, the use of symbols is less universally endorsed than other types of images. Some guidelines oppose the use of symbols outright, noting that their meaning must be learned.


While we have been able to identify some commonalities across the various guidelines, not all guidelines include the same specifications. Notably, there are some contradictory recommendations. For example, there is no clear consensus that using pictures with text improves comprehension of the text, even though this is common practice.

When examining the evidence supporting the various guidelines, overall there was very little empirical evidence. Very few studies have systematically measured the various components of documents that are supposedly designed to be ‘accessible’.

The importance of accessible information is agreed but what actually defines it remains in contention. Picture: Wikimedia

What is documented is that material written in short, clear sentences with information clearly punctuated into small chunks enhanced comprehension. But even this is open to scientific debate, and remains problematic for people charged with the everyday responsibility of preparing written, accessible information.

Our on-going research will help produce accessibility guidelines that will be co-designed and co-produced by people with disabilities. Ideally, this will help support the production of accessible written communications for all Australians so that we can all “understand, evaluate, use and engage with written texts to participate in society, achieve our goals, and realise our potential.”

Our aim is that many more of us will be able to understand that next letter from the bank, or a reminder about bowel cancer screening – but also much, much more.

The Accessible Information Project at the University of Melbourne is run in collaboration with Scope Australia (The Communication Inclusion Resource Centre), the University of Sydney and Western Sydney University.

Banner image: iStock

University of Melbourne Researchers