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Disabilities Beat: Why plain language matters when educating on the eclipse

Total eclipse of the Sun. The moon covers the sun in a solar eclipse.
Pitris/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Total eclipse of the Sun. The moon covers the sun in a solar eclipse.

By now, most people have heard that Western New York and Southern Ontario will experience a total solar eclipse on April 8. But how did you receive the information you’ve heard about the eclipse? Did it include scientific terms that needed additional context to be understood? For people with certain intellectual or cognitive disabilities, general information about the eclipse and how it will impact their day isn’t always written in a way that meets their communication needs.

WBFO’s Disability Reporter Emyle Watkins speaks with Thomas Ess, the Vice President for Emergency Management at People Inc, a disability-services agency in Western New York. We discuss why plain language communication matters, how organizations have adapted existing materials for the people they serve, as well as how the eclipse is changing operations for group homes and programs for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

 Thomas Ess is smiling, wearing a suit, and standing in front of a yellow background.
People Inc.
Thomas Ess is the Vice President for Emergency Management at People Inc.

PLAIN LANGUAGE DESCRIPTION: On Monday, April 8th, the moon and sun will cross paths, causing a solar eclipse. Some areas will only see the moon block some of the sun, but Western New York and Southern Ontario will see the moon fully block the sun, called a total solar eclipse. The earth won't get the light from the sun in the same way, and nature will sound and look different while the moon blocks the sun. This is an experience that won't happen again in our area until October 26, 2144.

Since this is such a special experience, everyone is talking about it. However, a lot of information about the eclipse uses terms people who aren't as familiar with science or eclipses will know as easily. Some of the information about the eclipse isn't shared in an easy to understand way, or it might be on a page with a lot of other text or images, making it hard to read. For some people with intellectual or cognitive disabilities, or who maybe didn't learn English as their first language, this information doesn't give them the same opportuntity to learn about the eclipse.

So, WBFO's Disability Reporter Emyle Watkins spoke with Thomas Ess. Thomas works at People Inc, an organization that helps disabled people and older adults with where they live and provides different programs for them during the day. Thomas manages emergencies that impact People Inc and the people they serve. Since the eclipse is such a large event, he was in charge of managing it for the organization. Thomas had to plan how People Inc would make sure group homes and other living situations that include daily staff will have enough staff. Since so many people will be watching the eclipse, travel will be hard that day, and roads will be backed up with cars. So they decided to not have programs where people would have to travel to the program, and instead have the staff who run those programs go into group homes and help out so people could stay home.

Thomas also has needed to make sure everyone who works or lives in a group home, or another living situation with staff, understands what will happen on eclipse day. Thomas worked with Erie County and self advocates to write information about the eclipse that is in plain language. Plain language uses words and phrases that are easier for everyone to understand. This is important because it means that everyone living in these group homes and residential setting can understand when the eclipse is happening, what it will be like, and how to safely watch it.


The Eclipse Soundscapes Project commits to using plain language in their resources at eclipsesoundscapes.org.

The Self Advocacy Resource and Technical Assistance Center offers a plain language resource explaining the eclipse, how to view it and what glasses to wear at selfadvocacyinfo.org.

WBFO's Disabilities Desk has covered and continues to cover different ways people with disabilities can equitably enjoy the eclipse. To see more of our stories, click here,andto read an article with advice about eclipse viewing with different disabilities, click here.


Emyle Watkins: Hi, I am Emyle Watkins, and this is the WBFO Disabilities Beat.

The 2024 total solar eclipse is now just days away. For local organizations that run group homes and provide support to people with disabilities living independently, the eclipse has proved unique to plan for.

I spoke with Thomas Ess, People Inc's Senior Vice President for Emergency Management, about how the eclipse will impact the homes many people with intellectual and developmental disabilities live in. Here's part of that interview.

Thomas Ess: We've taken a pretty aggressive approach here, knowing that there's a real potential for issues with transportation, especially given the schedule that we have.

We serve people in a day-program setting and it just so happens that the time when they would be leaving to go home is the exact time when the eclipse is occurring. So we've chose to close our day programs for the day, and have people be able to be at home and watch the eclipse there.

Just the thought of being delayed for a long period of time was going to be an issue. We did that with our respites as well. Because a lot of schools are closed, our respite programs are afternoon respites. So it's the time after school until maybe Mom or Dad can come pick up their son or daughter. Those are closed as well because schools are closed.

We've also closed our administrative buildings, just because we felt it was appropriate to let people do what they can at home for work and then enjoy it however they might want to.

Emyle Watkins: Have you had to modify staffing at all for your agency? Obviously a lot of people will be home from work. But in settings like group homes where people have to be in person for that work, how is that working out? Is that changing shifts at all?

Thomas Ess: Yeah, we're actually having the people that work in our day program detail into our residential sites, to help cover the fact that there's going to be people home when they normally wouldn't be. And we don't usually account for that staffing.

We're also having our afternoon staff report at noon, because our shift change is also at three o'clock; which is, again, in the middle of the eclipse. So we are preparing for that, as well as offering an incentive for holiday pay almost. We're paying time-and-a-half because we want to make sure we have enough staff.

Emyle Watkins: What are some of the challenges of communicating to people how this is going to impact their day? Because I know for a lot of people with disabilities, routine is very important, especially for people with intellectual or cognitive disabilities. Disruption in routine can be a big deal.

Thomas Ess: A couple of things. We tried to treat it just like a holiday, so that's kind of what we're doing now. And what you do with the holiday is talk about it ahead of time.

For some people, that helps them process the information and get them prepared for what they need to experience. Some people, it's better that they don't perseverate on it. So we talk about it that day and say, "This is what's happening today."

We're also working on using plain language types of instruments to help educate them on this eclipse and the safety because it is a pretty cool experience. We want to share that with them. And using plain language helps; because the stuff from NASA is great, but might not work for everybody. So we've been very fortunate to have some access to that that we're being able to distribute.

Emyle Watkins: And for people who aren't familiar with plain language, how would you describe plain language? It sounds like there aren't a lot of materials that are in plain language on the eclipse?

Thomas Ess: Yeah, we're very fortunate. Erie County helped develop some plain language. We worked on some as well in house with our advocates.

Plain language essentially provides a way of speaking that might be a little more on a simple term, helping to describe things without using large vocabulary that might be confusing or otherwise not able to be read.

So, when you're talking about some documents that NASA's producing, they did produce it in English and Spanish, which is great. But some of the words they use can be intimidating; and it's a lot of text in a small space. That's also a lot of it too, is just the accessibility of it. Being able to read along easily can be difficult for some of our folks. So plain language goes along with both the content, but also the way it's accessed. So it might be a little larger prints based on a little bit different things like that.

Emyle Watkins: What do you think companies and organizations could do better to communicate emergencies or large-scale events like this to people with intellectual or developmental disabilities?

Thomas Ess: Yeah, I think it's always a challenge when we're communicating in any emergency environment. Because really, it comes down to preparation; because when it's happening, it's too late.

So, I think what all organizations have been striving to do; and I think really the snowstorms this past 2023 and 2022 really did prove to us that we need to be doing the best we can with that, and preparing people for the fact that they might not have help, and that they need to find a circle of support that's even closer. Because those are very real possibilities in our area: that snowstorms will cut off your ability to have staff come and provide the assistance needed.

So, a lot of what we've been working on is making sure people are prepared with their own plans ahead of time. That's the type of communication that needs to happen ahead of time.

With this, it's more about making sure that people are engaged, and have a connection with someone or some organization perhaps that is there, and is thinking about these things to talk with them about it.

Emyle Watkins: What are some ways that disability organizations like yours could be better supported in future eclipses? Obviously, the next total solar eclipse won't happen in Buffalo for a very long time. But what are the lessons learned here that could help future areas?

Thomas Ess: Yeah, I think honestly they've done a fantastic job. And I think it does help when we have this amount of time and the amount of preparation that went in. So very small list of things that would be on my concerns that we didn't get support.

Obviously, financial support would be great to be able to help pay for staffing with the increased costs and things like that. But honestly, I think the plain language piece was addressed. And I think that's really a sign to me that we are moving in the right direction.

Emyle Watkins: That's great to hear. Do you have any advice for people with disabilities watching the eclipse that you've learned through this process?

Thomas Ess: Sure. I think the most important thing is to know when it's going to happen, right? It's pretty spelled out for our area. It's going to be starting around 2:05 P.M. and go till about 4:30, with the main part of the eclipse being about four minutes, around 3:18 P.M.

The key is making sure you have your glasses. You got to have them on the whole time, even during the partial phase. So that would be for everyone, not just people with a developmental disability or any disability.

But I think the other piece is make sure you're there a little bit ahead of time. Give yourself adequate amount of time to get to where you need to be, because it's not going to be necessarily easy to go where you think.

Parks are going to be really busy. It might be better just in your backyard if you're a local, right? So there's a lot of opportunities, though, and a lot of cool things going on. So if you want to do those, those are great. But plan ahead.

Emyle Watkins: To listen to the Disabilities Beat segment on demand, view a transcript, plain language description, and learn more about the eclipse, visit our website at wbfo.org. I'm Emyle Watkins. Thanks for listening.

Emyle Watkins is an investigative journalist covering disability for WBFO.