Inclusive language is language free from words, phrases, or tones that reflect prejudiced, stereotyped, or discriminatory views of particular people or groups. It is also a language that doesn’t deliberately or inadvertently exclude people from being seen as part of a group.
The language we speak is a powerful and quickly evolving tool that can either draw us closer together or drive us apart. Especially nowadays, as the population becomes more diverse and intersectional, we should reexamine our word choices so that we show respect for individual differences, cultures, and experiences.
Not only should we speak with bias-free language, but also put emphasis on a “people-first” language approach in our organization that makes everyone feel welcome and safe.
In this article, you’ll learn why using inclusive language is so crucial and how to introduce inclusive practices into your daily life and work.
Why does inclusive language matter?
You are doing the right thing
Primarily, because it’s the right thing to do. Promoting diversity, pursuing equality, and helping people to feel fully respected and accepted should be rooted into your organizational culture. It not only gives you the feeling of doing something good but also results in people’s increased engagement, unleashing their potential and loyalty in return.
“Inclusivity means not ‘just we’re allowed to be there,’ but we are valued. I’ve always said: smart teams will do amazing things, but truly diverse teams will do impossible things.” Claudia Brind-Woody
You can attract talented people
The demand for diverse and inclusive workplaces increases every year. If the company promotes diversity and treats it as its core value, the chances of being considered as a future employer are really high. According to a Glassdoor's Diversity and Inclusion Workplace Survey, being an inclusive company is an important factor that employees search for:
“More than three out of four job seekers and employees (76%) report that a diverse workforce is an important factor when evaluating companies and job offers. This means that, whether or not your company is interested in increasing its diversity, most candidates are nevertheless evaluating diversity when they research your company and during the interview process.”
Your customers expect diversity
Companies that actively demonstrate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) might observe increased interest in their products and services, and deeper customer relationships that subsequently affects their sales and profitability.
It goes without saying that as the population becomes more diverse and intersectional, they are more likely to buy brands that share their inclusive values, and foster diversity, equality, and equity.
“Inclusivity is increasingly expected, especially by Gen Z and millennial audiences.” Jill Estorino, President for Disney Parks International at The Walt Disney Co.
How can we speak to/about diverse audiences?
Using inclusive language is highly important when referring to individuals or groups of people based on shared characteristics such as gender, religion, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, disabilities, and physical characteristics. Referring to these characteristics should only happen when it’s relevant to a discussion and should be used with care and consideration.
Before using inclusive language, we should ask ourselves these questions:
- Is there a need to refer to personal characteristics such as sex, religion, racial group, disability, or age at all?
- Are the references to group characteristics included in inclusive terms?
- Do the references to people reflect the diversity of the intended audience?
- Is the use of jargon and acronyms excluding people who may not have specialized knowledge of a particular subject?
It is also worth mentioning that inclusive language does not mean using some mundane, vague, and complicated words, but it means the language has been well-thought-out with the intention of showing respect and neutrality.
In the section below, you’ll find best practices for talking/writing about intersectionality with inclusivity and respect, as well as good and bad examples and the reasoning behind them.
The best practices are based on certain characteristics of a group of people, such as:
- People with disabilities
- Culture, race, ethnicity, and nationality
- Gender and sexual orientation
- Socioeconomic status
Let’s dive into it!
People with disabilities
- Focus on the person, not the disability. Try to pick the words.
- Refer to people with disabilities only when necessary. Consult the proper diagnosis from a reputable, medical source.
- Ask people you refer to how they would like to be described.
- Get familiar with Disability Language Styleguide.
- Follow The Diversity Styleguide that combines definition and information on diversity from variety of resources.
Examples of bias-free language:
A person with a disability
A person living with a disability
First and foremost, ask people how they would like to be described.
While most of the guidelines say “people with disabilities,” “Many disabled people, however, say the disability is not inside of them: they are not a ‘person with a disability.’ Rather they are a ‘disabled person’ — someone who is disabled by a world that is not equipped to allow them to participate and flourish.”In person-first language, the person is emphasized, not the individual’s disabling or chronic condition.
|Wheelchair-bound person||Person who uses a wheelchair||Avoid “confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair-bound” as these terms describe a person only in relation to a piece of equipment, whereas wheelchairs allow people to move, liberate them.|
|Condition||Be careful when describing the nature of a disability to avoid judgment.|
Person with a disability
Person who has a disability/is disabled
Person people with intellectual disabilities
Child with a congenital disability
Child with a birth impairment
Physically disabled person
Person with a physical disability
Use person-first or identity-first language as is appropriate for the community or person being discussed.
The language used should be selected with the understanding that disabled people’s expressed preferences regarding identification supersede matters of style. Avoid terms that are condescending or patronizing.
Person with deafness
Person who is deaf
|Deaf person||Most Deaf or DeafBlind individuals culturally prefer to be called Deaf or DeafBlind (capitalized) rather than “hearing-impaired,” “people with hearing loss,” and so forth.|
Culture, race, ethnicity, and nationality
- Avoid emphasis on racial and ethnic “differences.”
- Don’t rely on stereotypes – avoid making positive/negative generalizations about a particular group.
- Only identify a person’s race, ethnicity, or national origin if it is relevant to your work.
- Ask the person how they prefer to be identified.
Examples of bias-free language:
|Asians, Americans, Latinos, etc.||People from Indonesia, Thailand, etc.||Don’t use umbrella terms that might ignore multiple ethnicities.|
Using the terms “Afro American” or “Negro” is inappropriate. Be specific regarding nation or region of origin to avoid insinuating that all people of African descent have the same background, history, etc.
Capitalize “Black” term when referring to ethic, race, cultural context e.g. Black people.
Historically underrepresented groups
People of color
|It might imply that one is better than the other.|
|Orientals (about Asians or Asian Americans)||Asian (give specific region here)||
Orientals is an offensive term, use instead “Asian” for people from Asia, or Asian American for people of Asian descent in North America.
If possible, provide a specific region of origin.
“Caucasian” is a pejorative term, instead write “white” or “European American” for people of European descent in North America.
If possible, provide a specific region of origin.Avoid capitalizing “white” term
|If possible, identify the specific indigenous group or nation.|
|Hispanics/Latinos||People from Central or Latin America (provide specific region)||Ask people to self-identify and provide a term that is specific to their nationality.|
Gender and sexual orientation
Gender is the socially constructed ideas about behavior, actions, and roles of a particular sex (APA, 2021b). Sexual orientation is a part of individual identity that includes “a person’s sexual and emotional attraction to another person and the behavior and/or social affiliation that may result from this attraction” (APA, 2015a, p. 862).
- Always ask a person their preferred name and pronouns. It can be done during an introduction, “Hi, I’m Magda, and I use she/her pronouns. What do you prefer?”
- Don’t assume that readers are female or male, heterosexual, cisgender, and so on (e.g., use the term partner instead of girlfriend or boyfriend).
- Use gender-neutral job titles (e.g., firefighter instead of fireman).
- Avoid using gender as a substitute for a trait (e.g., manly for strength).
- Avoid language that assumes all personal relationships are heterosexual and denies the existence of same-sex relationships.
- When writing about a known individual, use that person’s identified pronouns.
- Avoid making assumptions about an individual’s gender. If the individuals whose pronouns are not known or whether the gender of a person is irrelevant to the context use the following forms: “they”,“their,” “them,” “theirs,” and so forth.
Examples of bias-free language:
|Sexual preferences||Sexual orientation||Sexual orientation is not a choice or preference.|
|It can be seen as derogatory when some terms are used by people outside of the group.|
|Girlfriend/boyfriend||Partner||Don’t assume gender only through your lenses.|
|Use gender-neutral job titles and gender-inclusive nouns to describe people who may be of any gender.|
TransvestiteTranssexual (unless being used medically)
LGBTQ+, LBGTQIA+, etc.
Trans and gender nonbinary folks or folxGenderqueer, queer*
The term “tranny” is considered a slur.
Have in mind your audience when using the term “queer”; not everyone perceives this word positively.
Born a girl, born female
Born a boy, born male
Assigned female at birth (AFAB)
Assigned male at birth (AMAB)
|The term “born a girl/boy” can be offensive and inaccurate to cis and trans people since we do not choose what sex we’re assigned at birth.|
- Be specific about the age groups when possible.
- When contrasting older adults with adults of other ages, describe that other age group specifically (e.g., young adults vs older adults, middle-aged adults vs older adults).
Examples of bias-free language:
Persons 65 years or olderThe older population
|Words such as “the aged,” “elderly,” etc., connote a stereotype and suggest that members of the group are not part of society but rather a group apart.|
Men between the ages of 65 and 75Octogenarians
|Use precise language, provide information about age range, mean, and median. This recognizes that older adults are diverse and not a monolithic group.|
Person with dementiaPerson with dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease
|Avoid using language that might suggest that all older adults have some cognitive issues or health problems.|
Socioeconomic status (SES) encompasses not only income but also educational attainment, occupational prestige, and subjective perceptions of social status and social class.
SES encompasses quality of life attributes and opportunities afforded to people within society and is a consistent predictor of a vast array of psychological outcomes (APA, Section 5.9)
- Treat all people equal-with respect and dignity, regardless of their economic and social status or geolocation.
- Avoid using negative terms that might refer to economic/social status and geolocation.
- Make references to location and economic status where this is relevant to the discussion.
- Avoid deficit-based language that emphasizes what people lack rather than what they possess.
Examples of bias-free language:
People whose incomes are below the federal poverty threshold
People whose self-reported incomes were in the lowest income bracket
|Many people find the terms “low class” and “poor” pejorative. Use person-first language instead. Define income brackets and levels if possible.|
People experiencing homelessness
People who are homeless
People in emergency shelter
People in transitional housing
|Address the quality or lack of housing or length of time without housing, not whether the people consider their residence a home (APA).|
High school dropouts
Poorly educated or having little educationAchievement gap
People who do not have a high school diploma or equivalent
|Do not label people based on their outcomes or opportunities – provide more sensitive and specific descriptors.|
- Always refer to people first. When referring to, e.g., those with disabilities, please state the person first and then the type of disability (“child with autism” or “child who has autism.”)
- Ask people how they prefer to be described and once you know it, stick to it.
- Educate yourself about inclusive language. It might happen that we say words that can hurt people without the intent to do so. Explain what you mean and mean what you say.
- Avoid using euphemisms (e.g., victim or afflicted) and don’t rely on stereotypes.
- When writing inclusively, try to implement images as well as testimonials from diverse audiences.
- Provide readers with a content subject that is inclusive and does not exclude some groups of people.
Helpful tools and articles for inclusive language
Test yourself for hidden bias
So, now that you’ve grasped some knowledge on inclusive language, I encourage you to spend a few more minutes to test yourself for hidden bias at "Project Implicit," created by psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington.