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Beyond Plain Language: Creating Effective Communication Materials for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Creating Communication Materials for People with IDD and ELL

Adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and extreme low literacy (IDD/ELL) are a diverse audience with unique communication needs. Even when information is created using current plain language and clear communication standards, people with IDD/ELL may still have challenges understanding it. Before you start creating materials for this audience, it’s important to better understand who you’re writing for and how their communication needs may differ from other audiences.

RTI and our partner CommunicateHealth worked closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to create a “How To” tool that public health practitioners can use to help develop communication materials for adults with IDD/ELL and their caregivers. We developed the tool through a literature review, expert input, audience insights from testing COVID-19 materials with adults with IDD/ELL, and findings from a survey of 100 caregivers who support adults with IDD/ELL.

6 Evidence-Based Tips for Creating Materials for Adults with IDD/ELL

While some communication best practices for general audiences are universal, not all of them also apply to adults with IDD/ELL. Here are 6 evidence-based tips for developing materials for adults with IDD/ELL, available in the tool’s User Guide:

  1. Focus on a single behavioral recommendation and the action you want people to take after reading your product. For multiple behavioral recommendations, create a separate product for each recommendation.
  2. Cut anything that’s not essential—such as excess information, words, or images that detract from the main behavioral recommendation—and focus on the information needed to complete the behavioral recommendation.
  3. Include only one idea or behavioral step per page (for a print product) or screen (for a digital product). Use only one image and one to two lines of text that directly relate to the image.
  4. Write short, straightforward sentences with common, literal words and use the simplest words and sentences possible to effectively convey your message. Avoid idioms and figurative language—for example, say “help you” instead of “give you a hand.”
  5. Keep images literal and realistic and ensure that images reflect what your audience might see in real life. Avoid abstract symbols or representations, such as music notes to represent singing or wavy lines to represent heat.
  6. Use social stories to give step-by-step instructions by illustrating short stories that break down behaviors (such as handwashing) or situations (such as getting a vaccine) into concrete steps. Be sure to use a single main character to help the audience focus on your main ideas.

Example Material for People with IDD/ELL

Developing effective communication materials for adults with IDD/ELL involves more than just making edits to existing materials. Effective communication requires a different approach that goes beyond general plain language best practices to meet the unique needs of this audience. These six tips offer a foundation for developing these materials. You can find additional and specific guidance in the tool, now posted on CDC’s website.

Interested in Learning More?

Members of the RTI team talked about the project and related on ideas on the public radio show, The Measure of Everyday Life. Listen here, or click the Play button below.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Molly M. Lynch (Director, Audience Engagement Research Program), Linda Squiers (Senior Health Communication Scientist), Sidney Holt (Health Communication Scientist), and Jeff Novey to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.