Inclusive Language: A Brief Guide

By Mary Ortega

[Writer’s Acknowledgement: I acknowledge that I do not identify as a member of the LGBTQ+ community or a person with a disability. The following information is only a brief guide to using inclusive language and encourages further research. ]

[Disclaimer: Folks that belong to any groups mentioned may prefer other terms.] 


Why?

Language is a beautiful tool for self-expression and for understanding others in our community. It has given so many individuals the platform to speak about their passion. But when used without a care, language can construct barriers.

We adopt these barriers into our everyday communication unconsciously. That is what we call unconscious biases. For instance, when we use man-kind instead of humankind to describe the people of the Earth, we fail to envision ALL the people. The use of inclusive language enables us to acknowledge and outgrow our unconscious biases and be more empathetic.

How?

According to the United Nations, to use gender-inclusive language, the language and writing used must not discriminate against a particular sex, social gender or gender identity and not perpetuate gender stereotypes.

To practice a more inclusive and respectful way of speaking, here are some of the elements of inclusive language.

Gender

The UN emphasizes how language is a powerful and essential aspect in shaping cultural and social attitudes and eliminating gender bias. To use gender-inclusive language in English, here are some phrases you can say start using:

Instead of:

Use:

  • Ladies and Gentlemen
  • Hey Guys!
  • Pregnant Women
  • Mankind
  • Waiter/Waitress
  • Man-made
  • Folks, everyone, everybody, people
  • Hey Friends! Hey Folks!
  • Pregnant people
  • Humankind
  • Server
  • Artificial, synthetic, manufacture

Other Gender-neutral language:

  • Brother/Sister -> Sibling
  • Husband/Wife -> Spouse
  • Boy/Girlfriend -> Partner
  • Mother/Father. -> Parent

Racial Identity

When talking about race and ethnicity, avoid using stereotypes of people due to their ethnicity, race, or skin colour.Likewise, avoid any kind of racial or ethnic slur. You might consider this as common sense but some people do not recognize that the words they are using are offensive. In particular, using the name of a continent instead of the country, like saying “Asian” instead of “Chinese,” when referring to someone is disrespectful.

Individuals who hold racial privileges might frown upon inclusive language because society already revolves around them. Consequently, they are always in the equation. Thus, marginalized individuals are often the people pushing for the development of inclusive language. However, choosing to respect others is not political. Here are some ways you can be more racially inclusive.

People With Disabilities 

We’ve been taught to treat people as people and to use people-first language. Not their disabilities. Although some folks may prefer people-first language, others may prefer identity-first language as their disabilities are a vital part of their identity. By conversing in identity-first language, you are validating the individual and their disability. Using people-first language with disabilities instead of disabled people conveys a positive message and humanizes the person. Ultimately, it is a personal preference so make sure to ask and listen to the individual with their preference.

Ableism 

You may have heard the term “ableism” being used around the media. Ableism is the term used to describe words and phrases that devalues and discriminates against people because of their disability. Can you think of some examples? If not, same here. It’s been so normalized and deeply embedded into our communities that we rarely perceive it as dismissive at first. Some common examples of ableist language are “psychotic”, “retarded”, “blind”, and “deaf”. 

Ways to avoid ableist language and examples of person-first language include:

  • Retarded -> silly, nonsensical 
  • Psychopath/Psychotic -> menacing, dangerous, or frightening 
  • Deaf person -> person who is deaf
  • Blind person -> people who have low vision

You can equally use “person living with disability”, and “person with lived experience of disability”. These are inclusive of people who no longer experienced disability.

When talking about a person with lived experience of disability, avoid adopting language that implies they are inspirational simply because of their impairment. Similarly, avoid making them objects of pity.

Stay Curious and Be Kind!

Practicing inclusive language promotes empathy, respect, and compassion which generates a meaningful lasting impact. For instance, members of marginalized communities encounter mental, emotional, and physical dangers. Using words that acknowledge their identity is crucial to establish psychological safety in schools, workplaces, online, and in public.

And as our society continues to progress, language continues to develop. With that, be open to making mistakes. Especially if you do not identify as a member of the group, you are talking about. Whether you are well-versed or a complete beginner, you are bound to be corrected, in which you respond by listening. 

Personal Reflection

As a co-captain of a team primarily focused on social change and mental health, the practice of inclusive language has vastly contributed to my ability to connect with my peers. It is a powerful tool in facilitating a safe environment for them and making them feel valued. With that being said, I am not perfect at it as I continue to learn from my mistakes and educate myself. 


Reference List

Inclusive Language | Queen’s University

Inclusive Language | Queen’s University. (2021). Retrieved 28 May 2021, from https://www.queensu.ca/styleguide/inclusivelan

Q&A: Why Inclusive Language Matters

Q&A: Why Inclusive Language Matters. (2021). Retrieved 28 May 2021, from https://today.duke.edu/2021/05/qa-why-inclusive-language-matters

Let’s be real: Inclusive Language Matters

Let’s be real: Inclusive Language Matters. (2020). Retrieved 28 May 2021, from https://medium.com/@nehajain_67217/lets-be-real-inclusive-language-matters-206a40f74c38#:~:text=Inclusive%20Langua

Positive Space Language – UBC Equity & Inclusion Office

Positive Space Language – UBC Equity & Inclusion Office. (2021). Retrieved 28 May 2021, from https://equity.ubc.ca/resources/positive-space/positive-space-language/

How to use gender-inclusive language

How to use gender-inclusive language. (2021). Retrieved 28 May 2021, from https://majorarqueerna.com/how-to-use-gender-inclusive-language/

UNITED NATIONS Gender-inclusive languageUNITED NATIONS Gender-inclusive language . (2021). Retrieved 28 May 2021, from https://www.un.org/en/gender-inclusive-language/

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