Making human rights accessible and realisable

Rachel Edwards, , Content design

It might seem like a stretch to link content design to human rights, but good content can actually do just that.

10 December was the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Developed after the second world war, the UDHR sets out the rights and freedoms that every person on the planet has. 

Children have rights too

Children have additional rights too, as well as those in the UDHR. These are set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The UNCRC is made up of 54 sections, or “articles” that cover all aspects of a child’s life. These include:

  • Article 12: you have the right to give your opinion, and for adults to listen and take it seriously.
  • Article 13: you have the right to find out things and share what you think with others.

We have legislation and standards that emphasise the importance of making content understandable. But how can children get involved, and form opinions, if they are given information they can't understand?

Field research with children

I spoke to 5 children, ages 7 to 17, to find out how they deal with complicated information, and how it makes them feel.

I showed them 2 bits of writing. The first was about free bus travel in Scotland for all young people. The second was about free tuition fees for children in Scotland.

Both pieces had a reading age of about 15 years old. As they read through them, the children struggled with words like “entitlement”, “bursaries”, “institutions,” “overseas”, and any of the acronyms.

“Alien language”

It was pretty clear to me the younger children didn’t understand what they were reading. They struggled over words, and said things like:

  • “It’s like an alien language”
  • “I just heard loads of really long words” 
  • “I understand the words, just not put together”

But when I asked directly if they understood it, they all told me they did. I asked them if they could explain it back to me. They said it was about that card for riding the bus, or about going to school.

OK, that’s the general sense of it. But did they understand what they needed to do with this information?

Navigating information

I asked what they would do next:

  • “I’d give it to my mum” 
  • “I wouldn’t know what to do next”
  • “I’d put it down and ask someone what it means”

The results of the research weren’t what I was expecting. I thought the children would tell me the text was confusing and complicated. I thought they would be angry at being given something they couldn’t understand. But it didn’t seem to bother them. 

Adult interpreters

After one of the interviews I had a chat with a parent. I asked why the children said they understood when they didn't. She said “Children are just so used to not understanding things. They hand it over to us without a thought.”

She was right. These children had stable figures in their life who would explain, interpret, and help them realise their rights - which is wonderful.

But what about the children and young people who don’t have that?

When you don’t have someone to ask

Some of my work has been with people who have gone through the care system. Studies have found that children in care have lower literacy and numeracy than the general population, and that continues throughout their lives.

Children in the care system may not have a constant adult figure who can explain things. Bus passes and tuition fees can be important factors in a young person's life, but what about something fundamental - family life?

The Adoption and Children (Scotland) Act 2007 amends adoption law in Scotland, and makes provision for the care of children. It has one section in it that gives rights directly to children. Section 32 says that:

"…an adoption order may not be made in respect of a child who is aged 12 or over unless the child consents.

This subsection applies where the court is satisfied that the child is incapable of consenting to the order."

This means a child who is 12 or older must consent to their adoption, unless they lack the capacity to consent.

I know it says that because I asked my friend who is a lawyer and she told me. But if you were a young person, would you be confident you understood what this means? If you didn’t have someone to explain it to you, would you know your rights?

When you don’t want to ask

And what happens if you don't want to ask someone to explain it to you? 

Some topics might seem embarrassing to young people, like sexting. The Protection of Children Act 1978 covers taking and distributing photos of children

It’s not easy to understand what the law says. But how many children who felt comfortable asking their parents about things like bus passes, will ask them about sending intimate images?

We can only control the information in our control

When someone can’t understand something for themselves, they might disengage, decide something isn’t for them, and leave. Or, they might rely on someone else to interpret the law for them: a charity or another organisation. 

Or they might look elsewhere altogether for information: what they hear in the school toilets, WhatsApp group, or online forums.

When we decide not to make clear information, we force people to go elsewhere. And we have no control over where that is.

Clear language opens up information

In content design, one of the hardest arguments we have to make is for writing in plain language. But we have the evidence that shows:

  • 1 in 7 adults in England have literacy levels at or below ‘Entry Level 3’, the equivalent  literacy skills expected of a 9- to 11-year-old,
  • 1 in 6 adults in England had literacy levels at or below level 1, considered to be very poor literacy skills. 

When we talk about making information accessible for children, we are helping them realise their human rights. We’re enabling them to participate, to have opinions, and to be involved in things that affect them. But we’re also doing that for everyone.

And there are lots of good examples of this happening.

I’ve worked with some wonderful lawyers to make sure things like privacy notices have a reading age of 11. There are some judges, too, who understand the importance - like Lord Justice Peter Jackson, who wrote his judgement on a family law dispute directly to the 14 year old at the centre of the case. But it requires willingness and work.

Why is it important?

Content can literally help people realise their human rights. 

Not just children. 

Not just people who have someone to help them understand. 



Making law accessible to young people

The “Making law accessible to young people” event was organised with Dr Ali Struthers at the University of Warwick. The speakers were:

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