Inclusive Language Primer

“Language is a tool of thought. It’s a tool for building community. Language is a choice that we make constantly. Each of us decides constantly what words we’re going to say, what we’re going to type into a text message, or put in an email. What language displays on our websites or goes in an official publication. It’s our choice.”

— Win Chesson, Stanford School of Business


Inclusion starts with language. Switching to inclusive language requires unlearning deep-seated habits and it takes practice. It isn’t easy to make this transition because ableist, gendered, and other forms of exclusionary words are built into our everyday language. And yet, practicing inclusive language doesn’t harm anyone. In fact, it can be the first signal of your commitment, as a business and as a leader, to creating great solutions for all people.

The goal of this primer is to provide starting points for understanding how nuanced inclusive language can be. As a resource, it is meant to be used as a guide and does not constitute a training course. Because language changes over time and from one culture to another, the learning process will be ongoing. This primer considers four aspects of inclusive language:

  • Why inclusive language is important
  • Who’s speaking
  • Harmful messages to avoid
  • Phrases, words, and terminology (U.S. English Context)

Please also review Producing positive disability stories, by Haben Girma.

Why inclusive language is important

The words we choose to use can indicate an underlying mindset. In addition, when we shift towards inclusive language it can also shape our mindset and actions. For this reason, when we talk about inclusion, the words we use should be a clear reflection of our intentions.

The U.S. has culture-specific nuances in language and legal criteria that can differ from other countries. The nuances of language can shape customer expectations and trigger public scrutiny, especially concerning disability. With this in mind, the benefits of inclusive language include:

  • Clearing the way for communities, customers, and partners to collaborate with together on innovative solutions.
  • Demonstrating that inclusion is a responsibility and practice. It is not about being nice or politically correct.
  • Respecting cultural diversity and the unique needs of individual people.
  • Setting basic expectations for how internal teams should treat one another, and customers.
  • To avoid signaling that specific groups of people aren’t important.
  • To empower people with disabilities as a primary customer segment.

Who’s speaking

Although inclusion is a rising topic in business, not all business leaders are successful at speaking about inclusion. Leaders who are successful have several traits in common:

  • Representation is important. They elevate and even defer to employees or customers who have personal experience and expertise with disability/accessibility.
  • Authenticity is important. They actively engage with excluded communities and maintain a personal experience of how exclusion and inclusion impact people. While they might not share their personal experiences with disability or exclusion, they have a meaningful connection to why inclusion matters to them and their business.
  • Integrity is important. They are honest and humble about the current state of inclusion across their business, especially accessibility. They acknowledge existing shortcomings and state a commitment to doing better. They demonstrate a plan for how those improvements and investments will be made. For example, they won’t host inclusion-related PR until all of their websites meet basic accessibility criteria.
  • Partnership is important. They surround themselves with people who have deep expertise with inclusion. Often, this is disability community leaders. They seek a mutual value exchange with these leaders and communities. In short, they substantially invest in and empower any community that they ask to provide feedback, guidance, on inclusion-related improvements.
  • They do their homework in advance of any speaking engagement. They respect local culture and local differences and use language that supports the audience they’re speaking with, not necessarily the one they’re from. They always maintain a high bar of inclusive language that reaches the widest possible audience, not matter where they are located.
  • They are proactive about the accessibility of the content of their speech. This includes providing accommodations such as sign language translators, live captioning while they speak, and captioning and audio description on any video content.

Harmful messages to avoid

Editor’s note: This section is an excerpt from Haben Girma’s Producing positive disability stories

  • Non-disabled people should feel grateful they don’t have disabilities. This perpetuates hierarchies of us versus them, continuing the marginalization of people with disabilities
  • Successful people with disabilities overcame their disabilities. When the media portrays the problem as the disability, society is not encouraged to change. The biggest barriers exist not in the person, but in the physical, social, and digital environment. People with disabilities and their communities succeed when the community decides to dismantle digital, attitudinal, and physical barriers.
  • Flat, one-dimensional portrayals of people with disabilities. Stories that reduce a person to just a disabled person encourages potential employers, teachers, and other community members to similarly reduce the person to just a disability. We are all diverse and participate in multiple communities, and flat stories actually make it harder to participate in many communities.
  • Avoid victimizing language when describing medical conditions and other aspects of the disability experience. E.g., “She is blind” is neutral, but, “She suffers from blindness” encourages pity.

Phrases, words, and terminology (U.S. context)

Each company or leader needs to determine their own criteria for inclusive phrases, words, and terminology. There isn’t a universal or fixed set of criteria for every situation. However, there are general conventions to be aware of. In the U.S., there are important nuances in language. Here are a few guiding principles, followed by specific examples of words and phrases to avoid:

  • Focus on language that empowers people and their strengths. Never rely on sympathy or pity.
  • Do your homework, learn what’s culturally appropriate.
  • Speak to the widest possible audience.

What to Avoid…

Avoid any term that is considered a derogatory slur.

Avoid outdated words and phrases that segregate and objectify people.

Avoid medicalized terms:

  • Disease, illness, stricken
  • Victim
  • Abnormal

Avoid using the words “normal”, “healthy”, or “average” to describe people without disabilities.

Avoid ableist language, like racist or sexist language, can be exclusionary and harmful. Some examples of phrases to avoid:

  • Hand-in-hand
  • One step at a time
  • Blindspot

Instead Use…

For extensive guidance on specific terms to avoid, and recommended alternates, see the National Center on Disability and Journalism style guide.

What to Avoid…

Avoid gendered words and male-centered words.

  • Man-made
  • Mankind
  • Manpower

Instead Use…

Gender-neutral words:

  • “freshman” becomes “first year student”
  • “you guys” becomes “you all”
  • “man-made” becomes “artificial
  • Be mindful of the range of genders (woman, man, transgender, queer, etc.) and that gender is different than sex (male, female)

What to Avoid…

Be aware that there are terms that are used in some social contexts, but should not be spoken by a corporate leader or written into product user experience:

Impairment, impaired (with respect to hearing, visual, mobility, etc.)

Words that objectify a disability and used to refer to groups of people (the blind, the disabled, the visually impaired, etc.)

Instead Use…

People-first phrases:

  • People or persons with a disability
  • People or persons with blindness
  • People or persons with vision/hearing loss

If a specific person or community that has indicated that they prefer a specific identity (e.g. Deaf, Deafblind, Autistic, etc.), address people as they individually prefer. But never assume that all people with related disabilities will have the same preference or identity.

More “Language Guide”