A question of empathy

One of the secrets of writing well is empathising with your reader. A good writer avoids making assumptions about their audience's background or level of knowledge, and never uses difficult, technical or specialist language. Even in the jargon-filled world of corporate life, you'd be hard pressed to find a banker, lawyer or accountant who would complain that your prose is too easy to read. This question of empathy struck me when I was surfing the website of a multinational household name and stumbled on some truly terrible prose that would be guaranteed to alienate rather than woo its intended audience. So in sharing it with you, I'd like you to empathise with the kind of person the words were intended for.

Imagine for a moment that you're an older reader who's reached the point where your arms aren't long enough to allow you to read without glasses. You're browsing the site of a company in which you have shares, and you're finding it all a bit of a strain on the eyes. You're wondering if there might be some way to make the text larger, and you've just found the 'help' link at the top of the company's page when you spot a link next to it marked 'accessibility'.

Intrigued by an abstract noun you've never actually used (or heard) in normal conversation, you click on 'accessibility', only to find yourself on a page titled 'Accessibility Help'.

Hmm, you wonder, does this page offer the same help as the 'help' page, or is 'accessibility help' so exotic that it's distinct from regular, common-or-garden help? Intrigued by the otherness of this help, you're keen to know more, so you click on a link to the company's 'Accessibility Statement', where you find a page describing why the company's websites 'support accessibility' (whatever that means).

And here, the website gives you some inkling of what it's all about:

'The world-wide web can be a great enabler and source of freedom and ability for disabled audiences, giving them the resources to find information they need.'

Your suspicion that the reader is being patronised here is mildly aroused by the use of the term 'world-wide web'. Has anyone ever actually used that phrase since 1998, you ask yourself? You wonder if the author of this text is deliberately aiming for ironic Austin Powers-style retro chic. How clever of them, you think, to have noticed that the internet has matured to the extent that, like so many other forms of popular culture (food, fashion, horror films), it can now look back in irony at itself.

But then you encounter the word 'enabler' five words later - another piece of vocabulary you've never had cause to use. Which wouldn't be so bad if it weren't accompanied by that strange sounding descriptor 'source of freedom and ability'. Source of ability? Does that make your car a source of driving ability, you wonder? Your oven a source of cooking ability? Your bed a source of sleeping ability? You suddenly feel a lot more enabled by all these sources of ability accessorising your life.

You soon go on to discover who this quaint, retro source of ability is aimed at: 'disabled audiences'. Not 'disabled people', you understand, or 'disabled users' or 'the disabled', but 'disabled audiences'. It makes you wonder if the writer of this paragraph isn't just a little queasily unsure about how to address this particular 'audience'.

Besides, you thought the very concept of the audience had died with Craig's List. Aren't audiences a little bit passive for the particularly enabling source of ability that is the world-wide web? Aren't audiences the unquestioning spectators of - or listeners to - the unchanging work of an unchallengeable authority?

You wonder if this website hasn't been updated since the creation of ebay, wikipedia, or the goodcopybadcopy blog. You wonder why a multinational household name has never heard of You Tube. You wonder if you should pick up your source of long-distance communication ability, dial your stockbroker's number, and ask her to enable the selling of your stake in this backward-looking company right now.

Until it occurs to you that disabled audiences are, of course, still using that creaky olde worlde wide webbe. And what are they using it for? Because it 'gives them the resources to find information they need'.

Not for fun, you understand. Not to track the latest news from Iraq via RSS feeds or to experience the sheer, adrenaline-fuelled thrill of losing a month's salary on online poker or spread betting sites. Not to write blogs about their lives or upload videos of themselves doing stupid things to entertain the teenage masses. No, because they're, well, just so much more in need of the world-wide web's enabling, ability-providing resources than the rest of us.

But that's when you realise that this page is aimed at you, as a user with 'visual impairments that occur with aging'. It's also when you decide that, yes, you'll call your stockbroker this instant and tell her to end your shareholderly relationship with this company that holds you and your fellow disabled readers in such disdain. You're sure she'll understand. After all, she's always been so . . . what's the word? Empathetic?