"Embrace feeling uncomfortable. It's better a few people feel temporarily uncomfortable learning bias-free language than groups of people feel uncomfortable because they are dismissed or excluded out of convenience."
Inclusive language is much more than avoiding a few offensive or insensitive terms. The words we choose can be a way to show respect, be sensitive to others, and, well, include everyone!
If there was one message I picked up on again and again at the ACES 2021 Online Conference, it was that having good intentions when writing or speaking simply isn't good enough anymore. There's no excuse for using hurtful terms, and it's our job as teachers to impart this to our students who are learning this complex and wonderful language of ours.
Those running the conference sessions acknowledged that being fully inclusive can be a bit of a challenge, but the more awareness there is about outdated terms that are seen as racist, ableist, sexist, etc., the less they will be unintentionally used in writing and speaking.
Our language choices are so important—these days more than ever—so it's my honor, and even my duty, to share what I've learned with those in the ELT community.
Inclusive Language Tips
I last blogged about Inclusive Language in ELT in 2017 after an informative session put on by Editors Canada. Since then, I've attended several great webinars hosted by ACES: The Society of Editing on inclusive and accessible language. These two themes, inclusivity and accessibility, were central to the ACES 2021 Online Conference I attended in late April 2021.
Two sessions stood out in particular regarding inclusive language: "How to Ensure a Welcoming Lexicon and Inclusive Storytelling," presented by Lauren Applebaum and Tatiana Lee of RespectAbility, and "Inclusive Language," presented by freelance editor Talysa Sainz.
Applebaum, Lee, and Sainz shared excellent tips that we can all benefit from.
- Applebaum and Lee pointed out that 1 in 4 adults in the US has a disability, whether visible (e.g., physical) or nonvisible (e.g., cognitive or mental).
- Did you know it isn't PC to use the terms "PC" or "politically correct" anymore? Use "bias-free language" instead. Since the point is to break down barriers, stay away from terms with negative connotations (like "PC"), Sainz advised.
- Even subtle language usage, such as jokes, metaphors, or euphemisms, can be hurtful. Sainz gave the metaphor "crippled by debt" and blonde jokes as examples of microaggressions in speaking and writing.
Sainz spoke about what we can do to avoid using racist language. Aside from never using more obvious slurs, she suggested the following:
- Don't use food terms to describe skin color (e.g., caramel-colored skin).
- Avoid phrases that have racist origins, such as:
- master bedroom
- peanut gallery
- cake walk
- lynch mob
- gypped, gyp, jipped, jip
- off the reservation
- paddy wagon
- tipping point
Sainz also spoke at length on sexist language. Some of her tips included:
- Embrace the singular “they.”
- For teachers, if you think your learners can handle it (e.g., low-intermediate level and above), I fully recommend teaching them about the singular "they" as they will see it used when people choose not to identify as male or female.
- Teaching tip: Always use plural verbs with the singular "they" (the same as we do with the singular “you”).
- Phrases like “the opposite sex” are problematic because they assume a binary sexuality.
- Avoid gendered language such as "man hours," "man the station," and "guys/dudes."
- Avoid gendered language by making substitions such as these:
- mankind > humankind
- policeman > police officer
- repairman > technician
- stewardess > flight attendant
Applebaum and Lee focused primarily on ableist language during their presentation. They discussed how there's a shift occurring, with more and more people with disabilities preferring to be called "disabled people."
- Identity-first language (e.g., a disabled person) is becoming more preferrable again, whereas people-first language (e.g., a person with a disability) was the recommendation not that long ago.
- However, they noted that many people still prefer people-first language, so whenever possible it's best to ask someone what they’d like to be called.
- They also reminded us that "disability" is not a bad word, nor should we think of it having negative connotations.
More tips from Applebaum and Lee included:
- Don't use euphemisms like "differently abled" or "special needs."
- Avoid passive, victim words (e.g., use "wheelchair user" instead of "confined to a wheelchair" and "he has cerebral palsy" instead of "he suffers from cerebral palsy").
Sainz also spoke about ableist language, and she said we must strive to avoid shaming (e.g., "Don't tell anyone about your disability") or invalidating (e.g., "You're not depressed, you're just sad") someone with a disability.
Sainz had another excellent tip:
- Avoid language that demeans anyone with a disability. Terms to avoid include:
- emotionally crippled
- depressed (unless you're actually referring to clinical depression)
- OCD (unless you're actually referring to clinical OCD)
- paralyzed (with fear, for example)
The following list includes resources mentioned during both presentations, along with some references the editors at ESL Library use.
Have you ever discussed inclusive language in class? Do you have any other resources to recommend? We'd love to hear from you in the comments section below.