Inclusive language is language that acknowledges diversity, promotes equality and instills the importance of respect toward all people.
Examples of inclusive language include using gender-neutral phrases when talking to groups, acknowledging first-nations people in a speech, and using modern medical descriptors rather than outdated ones with negative connotations.
This helps to ensure people are free from negativity, microaggressions, and subtle discrimination.
See below for examples of how to use inclusive language terms and expressions.
- Religious Inclusion: A principal of a private religious school welcomes people “of all faiths and backgrounds” into the school on an open day.
- Saying ‘Everyone’ instead of ‘Guys’: Using the phrase “everyone” instead of “guys” when referring to a group of people (e.g. Survivor Season 41).
- Gender Neutral Anthems: Changes to the Canadian national anthem to make it gender-neutral.
- Renaming Waitress to Server: Putting out advertisements for people in the service industry that refer to them as servers rather than waitresses to be inclusive of all genders.
- Not Assuming a Person’s Orientation: Asking a woman “are you dating anyone?” rather than “do you have a boyfriend?” in case they are LGBT.
- Gender Pronouns: Using the pronouns “they/them” for a person who identifies as non-binary.
- Referring to Disabilities: Saying “a person with a disability” rather than “a disabled person” in order to ensure their identity isn’t defined entirely by their disability.
- Medical Terminology: Using the modern phrase “autism spectrum” rather than “Asperger’s” to refer to a person on the autism spectrum.
- Pronoun Normalization: Calling someone “they” instead of by a gendered pronoun until they have told you their pronouns.
- Trans Inclusion: Increasingly, medical professionals are saying “people who can give birth” rather than “women” because many trans men have wombs and can still give birth.
- Renaming Football Clubs: Changing the name of a football club to avoid insulting indigenous peoples (e.g. Washington Redskins were renamed Washington Commanders).
- Community-Inclusive Pamphlets: Providing pamphlets and brochures in multiple languages to include minority populations with first languages other than English.
- Acknowledging Indigenous Lands: Providing an acknowledgment of country to Indigenous people before giving a speech on their land.
- Language on Bathroom Doors: Changing signs on bathroom doors to ensure Trans people feel they have a bathroom they can go into that will be safe for them.
- Renaming Locations for Inclusion: Renaming schools, streets, and parks so they are not named after colonizers or invaders. For example, in Australia, Ayers Rock was renamed Uluru because that’s it’s real name whereas Ayers was the white explorer who renamed it during colonization.
Common Inclusive Language Scenarios
Keeping in mind that 1 billion people in the world experience some form of disability, it is important to rectify past descriptor words and phrases that are hurtful in nature, and instead take a person-first approach with our language.
That is, putting the focus on the person, instead of their unique condition.
While each individual has their own preferred terminology that relates to their experience, the following are suggestions on how to use inclusive language:
A. Describing someone as “a person with loss of vision or a visual impairment”, instead of “blind.”
B. Communicating that a person “uses a wheelchair” instead of describing them as “wheelchair-bound.”
Mental health disorders affect 13% of the world’s population. Medical professionals are increasingly trying to avoid stigmatization of people with mental health disorders.
As we continue working on de-stigmatizing language, being mindful of how those around us may be affected by our choice of words is top of mind as it relates to mental health.
Moving away from casual discriminatory descriptors (e.g. “spaz”, or “psycho”) of someone when behaviours are minor, in comparison to actual mental health disorders is being inclusive.
This helps to provide a safe space for those diagnosed with mental health disorders to not feel ostracized or less-than based on their health concerns.
Using gender neutral language is an excellent way to use inclusive language.
Rather than defaulting to commonly used phrases and nouns that often include the word “man,” or words that are masculine in nature (i.e. “guys”), it’s good practice to be more neutral in our communications so as not to segregate people.
By upholding the values of gender equality in our communications, it encourages the alteration of language that is based on stereotypes.
For example: Rather than describing someone as ladylike or a gentleman, cut out the gender associations and define them as polite or kind. Similarly, refer to a group as “folks” instead of “guys” if they are of mixed company.
Ageism pertains to discrimination or prejudice solely on the grounds of a person’s age.
In order to use more inclusive language, the focus should be highlighting someone’s individuality instead of their perceived age group or generation. The following suggestions move away from generalizing and grouping people together based on perceived associations or ages:
1. Rather than stating that someone is “old”, instead focus on describing them as experienced or effective.
2. Instead of classifying someone by an age category (i.e. Boomer, Middle-aged) refer to them as their specific age or as a “person born between x year and x year.”
Socioeconomic language refers to language that is associated to class, with an emphasis on monetary income.
When talking about folks from different socioeconomic situations, inclusive language ensures that respect and dignity is being given to these individuals and communities regardless of the place they grew up in or currently live. This can be accomplished with the following modifications:
1. Instead of saying someone is from the “inner city” or “homeless”, refer to them as “under-resourced” or as a “person experiencing homelessness.”
2. Rather than stating someone is from a “disadvantaged neighbourhood”, instead describe them as “inhabiting in a neighbourhood with access to fewer opportunities.”
In the sentiment of words holding a strong meaning and affirming biases, it’s important that we utilize inclusive language in a manner that also allows for people to change and grow.
In the case of criminal justice, for instance, the intention is for those in the system to seek repentance and reform of their person during long periods of reflection.
By speaking about people involved in the prison system in derogatory terms such as “felons or predators,” there is an unfair label being placed on someone, which prevents them for pursuing all types of opportunities.
While we may not always agree with a particular person’s actions, showing empathy is how we evolve inclusive language and social cohesion, and allow for others to change.
As we embody and support more inclusive language, this means discussing and addressing groups in the way they prefer to be identified. This could look like using preferred spellings of culturally significant phrases and words, as well as avoiding idioms and phrases with problematic origins.
This also means moving away from generalized descriptor words such as “alien, foreigners, and ethnics” in favour for “people of colour, persons, and immigrants.”
Beyond reflecting on how our words hold weight, it is equally important to recognize the contexts in which our language is impactful.
Similar to the criminal justice system, the medical industry is a great place to practice inclusive language.
By using person-centred language in tandem with person-centre care, health care providers and participants in the industry can better support the dignity of patients.
A change in this context could look like this:
Moving from classifying someone as a “sufferer” and instead saying they are “living with or being treated for” a particular disease.
Learning spaces where large groups of people congregate also provide excellent opportunities to put inclusive language into practice.
Acknowledging that many different types of people occupy educational institutions and workplaces also means it’s imperative that inclusive language is top of mind.
Providing professional and educational materials to employees and students, such as lectures and business reports, that include inclusive language ensures individuals feel part of the team and not “othered.”
Similarly, meeting titles and email subjects, as well as internal and external promotional materials should refrain from language that segregates to promote inclusion among all groups and communities that may make up these spaces.
Another approach to using inclusive language is utilizing culturally significant alphabets and pronunciation references, when referring to different cultures in writing.
This would involve utilizing fonts with diacritical marks, which are markings placed above or below a letter to indicate a particular tone or accent, as well as providing guidance of pronunciation for names, places, and phrases.
Visually, this may look like:
Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish, as spelled on bilingual BC road signs)
Associated Press: SKA’-jiht
Through inclusive language, there is an intentional avoidance of expressions and words that may be perceived as exclusionary to some groups, which in turn promotes social cohesion.
The implementation of inclusive language as a new standard for communication must be taken seriously due to how deeply language can impact how we view gender, race, and other cultures throughout society.
The purpose of inclusive language is to allow folks from all walks of life and diverse backgrounds, identities, and communities to feel accepted by society, no matter where they are or who they associate with. Rather than feeling segregated for perceived differences, inclusive language allows all individuals to exist as they are, freely in all spaces. By recognizing how biases and stereotypes have shaped our language, and actively working towards replacing them with inclusive language, we will become a more empathetic society that celebrates differences rather than compares and judges.