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  • Writer's pictureLeanna Coy, FNP-C

Welcoming Words: A Practical Guide to Inclusive Language



Laptop on a desk with the words "BE KIND" in green and blue letters on the black screen. Succulent plant and cell phone on left side of computer. Coffee mug and mouse on right side of computer.
Image by Dayne Topkin


Writing for today’s audience looks much different than 50 or even 20 years ago. Writers today need to stay mindful of inclusive language. Inclusive language is vocabulary that is sensitive to other cultures, ages, abilities, and genders by avoiding use of words or terms that may be offensive or exclusionary to specific groups. Using inclusive language is how to convey respect to others by showing sensitivity to the differences we all have and avoiding outdated labels as identifiers. The significance of using inclusive language cannot be understated in terms of how your words impact others. 


Why Inclusive Language Matters

The use of language defines how people see each other in the world. Words convey ideas and descriptions, and set the tone for interacting with one another. Words or phrases with historically inappropriate roots or stereotypes can leave people feeling excluded or promote bias against them. Using inclusive language helps to avoid marginalizing anyone with your writing. This is especially important when writing for healthcare. Your writing should be welcoming to the reader by promoting diversity and inclusion to draw people in by identifying the organization you are writing for as an approachable one. By avoiding outdated terms, you reduce misunderstanding and help promote clear communication to those you seek to reach with your writing. 


Common Areas for Improvement

Inclusive language covers many areas and is constantly evolving. In working to clean up your writing, there are some common areas to look for when updating with inclusive language in mind.


Gender: Historically, many terms and jobs were identified as masculine or feminine. These gender-identifying terms are moving to more generic or gender-neutral terms. Terms like mailman, spokesman, and stewardess are considered outdated, with genderless changes such as mail carrier, spokesperson, and flight attendant viewed as more acceptable. It is also becoming more common for people to self-identify in terms that are not the traditional gender binary language of female or male. Many cultures see gender as a continuum that has nothing to do with sexual orientation. Instead of using she/her or he/him, the terms they/them avoid the use of limiting binary language. 


Ability/Disability: The term “disability” triggers negative connotations encompassing someone’s physical, mental, and intellectual being. When writing about disabilities, it is necessary to use language that downplays a person’s challenges and focuses on their capabilities. Using person-first language is one method of this and is common in healthcare. In my education as a nurse, we were taught simple things such as not referring to someone as “the heart attack victim” and instead saying “patient experiencing a heart attack,” or “the disabled patient confined to a wheelchair” and instead “the patient using a wheelchair.”


Ageism: Ageism targets both older and younger individuals by stereotyping assumptions based on age and using biased language. Terms such as “senior moment” or “just a kid” connotate negativity based on age. Similarly, the terms “Boomer” and “Gen Z” are polarizing. Instead, use neutral terms such as “experienced” or “young adult.” 


Racial and Ethnicity: Race is the classification of people by physical characteristics (skin color, hair, eye shape). Ethnicity is people with a shared culture, language, customs, and beliefs. Both terms indicate common ancestry. Avoid the use of the terms “minority” or “ethnic and racial minorities” as they are outdated and inaccurate. Use more appropriate “people of color” or, even better, use the specific group name you are discussing. Avoid insensitive language that demeans people or reinforces stereotypes. When writing about a person’s heritage, it is essential to understand how they identify and use language that supports this. For example, not all indigenous people in the United States identify as “Native American.” Some prefer the term “First Nation.” Stay mindful of cultural sensitivities and educate yourself if needed. Only use respectful terminology and avoid generalizations.


Challenges

One of the challenges of using inclusive language is the ever-evolving natures of the terms. As terms become identified as problematic, new terms are found to replace them. It is your role as a writer to stay abreast of the changes in terms. Yes, there will be a lot of unfamiliarity. Accept that you are a learner with positive intent. By using resources and an open mind, you will have no problem adapting your writing. 

A second challenge is that many outdated or problematic terms are ingrained into our everyday language. From masculine-based terms such as “you guys” to ageist “little old lady” to race-based terms like “yellow belly.” You may need to carefully review your work to identify problematic terms in your regular vocabulary.


Writing with inclusive language shows respect and equality to all people. The language is non-discriminatory, multicultural, and unbiased. It acknowledges cultural differences while staying sensitive to them. Do your part by using language that is inclusive to the audience you are trying to reach. Begin practicing inclusive, unbiased language not only in your formal writing but also in your daily communications with others. Frequent use of modern, inclusive terms will quickly become routine in your language and the language of those who read your writing. 


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