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Does Inclusion & Accessibility Matter When Communicating Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)?


The North Carolina Environmental Managment Commission, consisting of 15 members, is responsible for environmental rulemaking including standards. The EMC and other rulemaking bodies hear many presentations.
The North Carolina Environmental Management Commission, consisting of 15 members, is responsible for environmental rulemaking including standards. The EMC and other rulemaking bodies hear many presentations.


Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) is probably the hottest topic in the environmental sector these days. As an expert in effective communication for technical professionals and a member of an environmental management commission, I was asked by an association to speak on the two topics. I chose one of the aspects of my communications method, inclusion & accessibility for the visually and hearing impaired, as the theme for my remarks.


What is PFAS?

PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances, are fluorinated carbon-chain compounds. PFAS has been used in fire response, industrial applications, and consumer products for decades. For these reasons, PFAS is also found in landfills and wastewater treatment facilities. PFAS chemicals are manufactured and produced worldwide.

There are over 7000 PFAS compounds that have properties that allow them to repel water and oil. For this reason, PFAS chemicals do not break down easily over time and have been nicknamed "forever chemicals."


The health effects of PFAS compounds are largely unknown.


Why Should I Care?

Whether you deal with PFAS or not, technical professionals can certainly relate PFAS to similar issues in their own work that have high levels of complexity and uncertainty.

Effectively communicating PFAS is a challenge because it is complex (consists of many parts), complicated (difficult), and uncertain (much is not known).


How Is Accessibility Related to FINESSE?

FINESSE is a mental model based on the cause-and-effect relationship of seven factors and effective communication. The seven factors are Frame, Illustrate, Noise reduction, Empathy, Structure, Synergy, and Ethics. Accessibility is a component of Structure in FINESSE.


What Examples Did You Use In Your Evaluation and Presentation?

Three presentations provided by state agencies were selected as case examples. Two presentations were provided to the state’s Science Advisory Board and one was provided to the state’s Environmental Management Commission. All three presentations were developed and communicated by experienced technical professionals who regularly provide presentations to boards and the public.


How Did You Evaluate Accessibility?

There are many tools that assist with evaluating accessibility in reports and presentations. I have a standard process to evaluate PowerPoint presentations using its accessibility checker and three other publicly available tools.


I have dozens of PowerPoint presentations that I have evaluated as part of my consulting practice and the Communicating with FINESSE community. I pulled ten random presentations and compiled accessibility statistics on the ten as a baseline sample. Nine of the ten were from similarly technical topics. Four of the ten were from private-sector presenters and six were from the public sector.


If you are keeping score from a FINESSE perspective, this baseline work is part of the Frame, the “F” in FINESSE, this presentation (article).


What Did You Find?

All three presentations were about the same ­­– no better and no worse – than the baseline sample. That is good on the one hand. On the other hand, it raises the question of whether the quality of the PFAS presentations was commensurate with the importance of the topic.


A few of the key findings included:

  1. The font type was good because all three presentations stuck with default PowerPoint and organizational standards.

  2. The font sizes in two of the three were erratic due to the presenter trying to cram too much on a given slide.

  3. Not enough attention was paid to the role of colors and their impact on people with deficient color vision and visual impairments.

  4. Alternative text was universally ignored.

  5. Reading order and headings were universally ignored. In one case, staying with the organizational standards appears to have had a positive impact.

I will leave the findings at these for the sake of brevity. One intricacy is that each shortcoming has both an individual and a cumulative effect because communication behaves as a system. The interrelationships of the different aspects have a definitive impact on the desired outcome (effective communication).


Applying It

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) is probably the hottest topic in the environmental sector these days. Effectively communicating PFAS is a challenge because it is complex (consists of many parts), complicated (difficult), and uncertain (much is not known). Whether you deal with PFAS or not, technical professionals can certainly relate PFAS to similar issues in their own work that have high levels of complexity and uncertainty.


Making your work more inclusive and accessible to those with visual and hearing impairments is the right thing to do. Some may argue that it takes extra time, but I argue that your presentations of your most meaningful work should rise to the same level as the quality of your analysis. Making your work more inclusive and accessible to those with visual and hearing impairments makes your communication more effective for all.


 

Founded by JD Solomon, Communicating with FINESSE is a not-for-profit community of technical professionals dedicated to being highly effective communicators and facilitators. Learn more about our publications, webinars, and workshops. Join the community for free.


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