Inclusive Language Best Practices

By Lisa Hirst Carnes | May 2023

Illustration of many different types of human hands holding various word bubbles.

On Thursdays, we do something called "Training Thursday" at ArcStone. Last Thursday, our training was about accessibility. We revisit this topic because it's an ever-changing discipline that we're committed to.  

At ArcStone, our motto is "The web for everyone." When websites are accessible, all users have equal access to information, making the web more inclusive.

Inclusive design is only one piece of the puzzle. This post covers another central element - the words we use. 

Remember the old nursery rhyme?

Sticks and stones may break my bones

But words shall never hurt me.

I can still hear the chanting on the playground. 

It couldn't be further from the truth. Words can hurt. They can be isolating, and they can make people feel excluded. 

Our words matter; more than ever, using inclusive language is vital. 

Before we get into it, I am not an expert on inclusive language. But, it's an important topic that will make the web a better place for everyone.

Learn more about our accessible and inclusive design services.

So, what exactly is inclusive language?

In its Guidelines for Inclusive Language, The Linguistic Society of America (LSA) defines inclusive language as "language that acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences, and promotes equal opportunities."

Using inclusive language involves not referencing age, race, and ethnicity unless relevant and, if necessary, using age, race, body size, or ethnicity as adjectives instead of nouns. For example, use "older people" instead of "the elderly" or "Chinese people" instead of "Chinese."

Inclusive language respects everyone and helps create a more welcoming environment.

In a way, inclusive language relates to accessibility. It creates an environment of respect, acceptance, and love. It also conveys the message that everyone is welcome and helps foster a sense of belonging.

General Inclusive Language Guidelines

People-first Language

One of my sisters is a teacher, and I remember her telling me that they address children as "kids" and not "boys and girls."
Inclusive language includes using gender-neutral terms like "folks," "friends," or "team." Instead of saying "female engineer," opt for "a woman on the engineering team." I have a good friend who's an engineer, and she hears this all. the. time.
When speaking about someone with a disability, don't make them sound like a victim. Terms like "confined to a wheelchair" or "cancer patient" infer that the disability defines the person. Opt for people-first language, such as replacing "disabled" with "person with disabilities."
Try to also steer clear of terms associated with stereotypes. “Manpower,” “mothering,” or “chairman” are gender-exclusive terms. Replace these with terms that are in favor of more gender-inclusive words.
When referring to people whose gender is unknown, steer clear of gendered pronouns. Use "partner" instead of "husband" or "wife" or "flight attendant" instead of "stewardess." While we're at it, how about if we call actors, actors?

Universal Phases

We all come from different backgrounds and have unique experiences. For this reason, it's important to remember that "common" idioms may not be so common at all.

I remember talking to a work colleague a few years ago, and I said, "That kind of jumped the shark." She looked at me with a perplexed expression. She had no idea that "jumped the shark," coined from a famous Happy Days episode, meant the idea had seen its better day.

Another big culprit in the web world is acronyms and jargon. Stringing together industry jargon isn't inclusive. Plus, it's confusing! 

There is No "Normal"

This one is important. There really is no "typical" type of person. Communicating with this bias will only isolate groups of people.  

Terms like "non-native speakers" or "non-white" positions some groups as the norm and everyone else as "other."

How can you make sure your website content is inclusive?

  • Don't make assumptions about users based on race, gender, age, sexuality, etc.
  • Avoid using language that could be considered offensive, outdated, insensitive, or exclusive.
  • Create content that celebrates diversity and includes people from all backgrounds.
  • Make sure that all images used are diverse and represent a range of identities.
  • Include accessibility considerations like adding alternative text to images or transcripts for audio.
  • And, finally, the most essential point, if you need more clarification, ask. 

Inclusive language and accessibility can be confusing. Be gentle with yourself as you try to learn, and find your way. 

Inclusive Language Resources

Conscious Style Guide

General Principles for Reducing Bias from the APA

The Diversity Style Guide

Quiz: You Can't Say That (Or Can You)

Topics: In the Community

Accessible Design