You have a name and have lived a myriad of experiences. Perhaps you have a disability or a historically marginalized identity. If someone mislabels you, it could hurt a lot – especially when done repeatedly over time.
That’s why inclusive language is important. Whether it’s for your students, friends, clients, or partners, inclusive language is crucial. It’s about being conscious of the power in your language, both for good and for causing pain. It’s about using language to name and honor the identities and experiences of those around you.
1. Put people first, which is especially relevant when talking with or about people with disabilities. Person-first language puts a person before any identifier.
2. It’s important to use gender neutral and inclusive language. Our language is often male-centered, and growing aware of that makes your language more inclusive of people who are not men.
3. It’s always a good idea to ask someone what identifiers they prefer. While person-first language and gender inclusive language is the most inclusive, some people have specific preferences about how they want to be addressed. And it’s important to honor that.
Using inclusive language doesn’t just make others feel better. It improves our own minds too. Language affects how we think of and understand the world. When you use inclusive language, you develop a more inclusive mind. In a workspace, this can lead to a wider sense of belonging within a team that can correlate with higher levels of creativity.
Remember to put people first. Use gender neutral and gender inclusive language. When in doubt, ask someone what they prefer.
Here are some common examples of non-inclusive language to reconsider.
- They suffer from…
Using this language implies that someone with a disability suffers from or is victimized by their condition. It implies the disability has severely downgraded the quality of their life, removes their agency while casting pity. Phrases like this also assume that disability and suffering are equivalent.
Every person with a disability is not suffering or appreciative of this language. Instead, use neutral language that’s accurate and has none of the unsolicited emotional charge, like they have a physical impairment.
2. That’s so lame.
Contrary to popular knowledge, “lame” doesn’t mean not cool. Instead, it actually describes when someone is unable to walk without difficulty due to an impairment in their leg or foot. Its common use to describe things that aren’t cool is rooted in the ableist idea that an impairment makes something uncool and unworthy. Instead of using lame, use words like boring or dull.
3. I’m so OCD.
Despite what commonly happens in movies or what we hear in conversations, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is not about being super tidy and clean. Individuals with the disorder experience obsessions (like intrusive thoughts) that lead to compulsive behaviors (to soothe anxiety and distress caused by obsessions). Compulsions experienced include much more than excessive hand-washing. Conflating cleanliness with a disorder is plainly incorrect and minimizes the experiences of people with OCD.
There’s no reason to blame preferences or habits on a non-existent disorder. Instead, say things like, I’m picky or I love to be really tidy.
4. Ugh, you’re so bipolar!
Bipolar itself is an adjective that describes something having two poles or extremities. Bipolar disorder is characterized by experiencing depressive lows and manic highs, with a few diagnostically different types of bipolar disorder. While bipolar itself can be a useful word in some situations, it is often used in a way to mimic common perceptions of bipolar disorder. These often add stigma to people with the disorder and their experiences. If someone changes their mind and another calls them bipolar, that’s an example of inappropriate use.
Instead, say a person who has bipolar disorder. For other situations where use of the word bipolar refers to the disorder in a situation unrelated to the actual disorder, use words like extreme fluctuations.
5. That’s what the policeman said.
There are plenty of occupational words where “man” is a part of the common use. Policeman is one of them, but this is male-centered language upholding the idea that police should be men. Instead, say police officer or police force.
6. Hey guys!
This may be one of the most surprising and hard to change phrases on the list because many people grow up using this frequently and for groups of people, even if the group is not fully or partially composed of men. However, this is a perfect example of male-centered language that is inherently exclusionary to people who aren’t men. Using folks or y’all instead is inclusive of all genders and means the same thing.
7. Welcome to freshman year!
Whether for high school or college, we know the order well: freshman, sophomore, junior, then senior. When we say “freshman,” we call every non-male student a man. This is another example of everyday language that we probably don’t realize the absurdity of because it’s so normal. But imagine how odd it would sound if the norm was “freshwoman” instead.
Instead, use a word that means the same thing while being inclusive of all genders: first-year.
8. For all mankind…
While mankind is a very common word that is used to refer to all humans, it’s ironic and inaccurate. This male-centered phrase replaces human with man, which gives more value and important to men. Think about how odd womankind would sound… and how many people would resist this. Use humankind instead.
9. This is manmade.
When something natural-looking was actually created by humans, it’s common to say that it’s man-made. But using man-made is exclusive on the basis of gender and, on a broader scale, suggests that only men build things. Instead, words like artificial, synthetic, and machine-made mean the same thing without any of the exclusion.