People working in the community and voluntary sector and in the public sector need to pay particular attention to writing inclusively.
Writing inclusively means writing to include all humans, and not excluding individuals or groups whether by accident or design. Inclusive writing is important because: ‘Language is a reflection of the attitudes, behaviours and norms within a society. It also shapes people's attitudes as to what is “normal” and acceptable’ (European Commission).
According to the National Disability Authority of Ireland, language should ‘reflect the individuality, equality or dignity of people’.
Research has shown that designating people by their individuality and common humanity first helps other people to view them in a more neutral way. Relevant attributes include gender, race, disability, religion and sexual orientation.
What we want to do is talk about different groups of people in a way that acknowledges differences but remains neutral. The following sets out some general guidelines on how to talk about various groups of people in an inclusive way.
1. Research how people prefer to be identified
Research how the people in the communities you are writing about prefer to be identified. Avoid terms that remove personhood, or that define people by a disability or similar attribute.
2. Refer to the specific attribute only when necessary
This guideline speaks for itself; if an attribute has no relevance in the context, then leave it out.
3. Use person-first language
An important tenet for human rights organisations is that labels are for files, not for people. When we need to refer to specific attributes of groups, we emphasise the person first and the attribute after: ‘people with disabilities’ and not ‘the disabled’; ‘people from low-income backgrounds’, not ‘the poor’.
4. Use positive language
When we use a phrase such as ‘non-Catholic’, we are defining someone by what they are not rather than what they are. Instead of using ‘non-Catholic’ use Buddhist, Methodist or whatever is relevant. Rather than ‘non-Irish’ use the person’s place of origin.
5. Avoid stereotyping
All of us tend to stereotype to some extent, depending on our life experiences, and we do so unthinkingly, without any intention of excluding people. However, negative stereotypes should be avoided. Gender is a common aspect of stereotyping: ‘The doctor updated his records’; ‘The secretary rushed through her work.’ Avoid stereotyping by social class and age group also.
6. Dealing with particular attributes
Gender Gendered language should be used only when it is relevant to know the gender of the person being discussed. Other aspects include using neutral nouns where possible, for example, ‘chair’ rather than ‘chairman’. The singular ‘they/their’ can be used to replace the more awkward ‘he/she, s/he, his/her’.
Age The basic rule applies when referring to older people: the best way is to refer to them simply as ‘older people’. This focuses on personhood in a way that other phrases do not.
Race Regarding race, again refer to it only if it is necessary to do so. Say ‘Black person’ rather than ‘Black’, but if you do this then also say ‘White person’. It is not that we want to remove all references to race, because race is an important aspect of identity. Rather we want to treat it as an attribute like any other, to be used in the same way for people of all races.
Disability or illness
Many terms that were used for a long time in the area of disability are outdated and no longer acceptable. Be aware of paternalism when discussing disability, and make sure to use person-first language. We now speak of ‘people with an intellectual/physical disability’ rather than people being ‘mentally handicapped’ or ‘disabled’. It is also best to avoid loaded words such as ‘suffers’ or ‘victim’.
To some people, paying attention to inclusive language is political correctness gone mad. To others it is a genuine attempt to discuss issues in a way that avoids being hurtful. It seems worthwhile to make that effort.