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By Julia Watts Belser

Mind to mind
Image credit: Mohamed Hassan

Ever since I began writing Loving Our Own Bones: Disability Wisdom and the Spiritual Subversiveness of Knowing Ourselves Whole, I knew I wanted to craft a plain language version. The book brings disability culture into conversation with Jewish and Christian traditions, inviting readers to explore how disability insights can transform our politics and our spiritual lives. At its heart, it’s a book about challenging ableism—a book that calls us all to build a radically accessible world.

So, I knew I wanted the book itself to be as accessible as possible. Beacon Press has been a wonderful partner on this front. Loving Our Own Bones will be released simultaneously in audio and print format. Beacon also works closely with Bookshare, an organization that makes books available in various formats to blind, low vision, and print disabled readers. 

But what about people with intellectual disabilities? What about people who feel daunted by long books or who can’t process complicated sentences? Plain language is a crucial dimension of access—one that’s often sidelined in mainstream publishing.

What is Plain Language?

At its best, plain language gives readers access to the same ideas as the original text. But it presents them in a more straightforward way. We use shorter sentences. We choose simpler words. We organize information more clearly, and we explain things that another reader might take for granted.

Plain language writing has long been part of my access commitments. In 2007, I cowrote A Health Handbook for Women with Disabilities with the Hesperian Foundation, a nonprofit publisher that creates simple, easy-to-read health guides that help ordinary people challenge the root causes of poor health. And for years, I’ve admired and learned from the work of self-advocates with intellectual disabilities, who use plain language to write pieces about disability rights and activism.

But it was reading Alice Wong’s new book, Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century that got me really excited about the possibilities. Wong commissioned a plain language translation by Sara Luterman, which she made available for free online.  The plain language edition of Disability Visibility was a revelation—and I resolved to try something similar with my own book.

Working Collaboratively to Create Access 

Even though I have a fair amount of experience writing plain language, I knew I couldn’t undertake this project alone. I didn’t have the distance to adapt my own book. So, I reached out to Devorah Greenstein, a dear friend with decades of plain language experience.

We worked closely and collaboratively at every stage. Devorah would begin by reading through a chapter, flagging important ideas and key passages. She distilled sentences, simplifying words, looking for more straightforward ways to say what I meant. Then she’d send the document my way. 

For me, it was a relief to have someone else take on that initial labor. When I went back to read a chapter, I could still remember crafting each of those sentences. I was too attached to the prose. But once Devorah cracked open the door, I could see new possibilities. Diving back in felt liberating, a chance to speak directly to a different set of readers.

I took up the second round of drafting, tweaking words and shifting them to match my voice. Once that was done, Devorah and I worked jointly over Zoom, editing and shaping the pieces into their final form.

Plain Language Calls for a More Direct Approach 

Like many books, Loving Our Own Bones is challenging to translate into plain language. Each chapter unfolds like an essay. The ideas are carefully braided; the argument develops in layers. I often circle back to a point I made earlier, inviting the reader to go deeper, to hold more complexity, to consider another angle.

At the outset, we tried staying true to the original flow of the book. But when we translated the first chapter paragraph by paragraph, we found ourselves getting lost in the weeds. It was too long, too difficult to follow.  So, we decided to try a different approach.

Instead of translating chapter by chapter, we identified a set of key themes that felt core to the book. We’ve crafted three plain language pieces to accompany the book’s release:

  1. Saying Yes to Disability
  2. What Do We Each Believe? Talking About Religion and Disability
  3. Disabled, Not Broken: Thinking Differently About Healing Stories

Each piece is short, at 2,000 words or less. While they read well together, we’ve crafted them so each piece can stand alone.

Each plain language piece communicates one key idea from the book in straightforward, accessible prose. As we worked together, identifying that single, core idea proved crucial. When we started each new plain language piece, we had to ask ourselves: What’s the takeaway? What’s the crux? We pushed ourselves to craft a title that named that idea directly. We used internal headings to crystalize the structure, to identify each important thought.

Clear, straightforward sentences became our touchstone. To condense the winding paths of a full book chapter into a tight plain language piece, we had to cut right to the heart of the matter. We chose the most vital personal stories, the most crucial biblical texts. We couldn’t equivocate. No meandering. No backtracking. Our task was to lay everything plain.

Plain Language Requires Us to Be Concrete About Our Aims 

Loving Our Own Bones reimagines disability in an ableist world. The book pushes back against deep cultural tropes that treat disability as a metaphor for spiritual incapacity or a tragedy to overcome. It demystifies how ableism operates, laying bare the power structures that force disabled people to the margins. It lays out a radically different vision: for a world where disabled people know our own worth, a world where we know ourselves beloved.

But culture is an amorphous idea, difficult to pin down. To make it work for plain language, we have to get more concrete. At the start of each piece, we name the problem. We give examples of the way people often approach disability, or the way most of us have been taught to think about God.

Then we draw the contrast. I speak directly to the reader, laying plain what I believe. I tell them what I think, in sentences that are short and unadorned. It’s a striking contrast to my usual style. My prose tends to flow with a complex cadence, phrase layered upon phrase. But writing plain language has taught me to appreciate the elegance of a spare, simple sentence. To claim the power of coming straight to the heart of the matter.

If there’s one thing that surprised me about the plain language versions, it’s this: how vividly these pieces capture my own voice. I write with a poet’s soul. When I was drafting Loving Our Own Bones, I’d often read my sentences aloud. I knew a chapter was done when each phrase felt like silk on my tongue, when the rhythm was right, when each word sang.

I wanted the same for plain language. Devorah and I chose each word deliberately. Each sentence got polished until it shone. We read to each other, testing possibilities. We worked to craft meaning. But we also listened for the music, for the beauty. As we adapted Loving Our Own Bones for a different readership, we wanted to make sure the telling still felt true.

We’re so grateful to Beacon for their tremendous support for plain language—and for working with us to design and layout these materials in an accessible way. The first three plain language pieces will be available for free download from Beacon’s website, once Loving Our Own Bones is released. We’re planning to release three more pieces next year. To get updates about the project, you can sign up for my mailing list at www.juliawattsbelser.com


About the Author 

Julia Watts Belser is a rabbi, a scholar, and a spiritual teacher, as well as a longtime activist for disability, LGBTQ, and gender justice. She is a professor of Jewish studies in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Georgetown University and core faculty in Georgetown’s Disability Studies Program, as well as a senior research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. Author of Rabbinic Tales of Destruction, among other scholarly books, she has held faculty fellowships at Harvard Divinity School and the Katz Center for Advanced Jewish Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s also an avid wheelchair hiker and a lover of wild places. Her book, Loving Our Own Bones, is forthcoming September 2023.