Inclusive Writing – A Style Guide

Posted on July 17, 2018

Kylie Bayer-Fertterer, Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District (LinkedIn, Twitter)
What I’m Listening To: In My Feelings by Drake, gotta practice for the challenge
What I’m Watching: Luke Cage
What I’m Reading: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
What I’m Doing: At work, 1,000,000 recruitments. At home, refinishing my garage with my husband and picking up my dogs teeth (he’s teething and it’s making me sick.) In my dreams, laying on a beach with a margarita and a big stack of books.
TD;DR Be conscious of the words you use to describe people from diverse backgrounds. Terms change and what’s socially acceptable today might not be in a few years.

I recently collaborated with a small team of employees to develop a style guide for writing about diverse groups of people. We brain dumped all of the terms we could think of for describing people and ended up with three different categories: people of color, people experiencing disabilities, and people who identify at LGBTQ+. Here are some tips from the style guide that you might find useful in your communication strategy.

  1. Use people-centered language. Try “person experiencing a mental illness” instead of “mentally ill person,” or “person of color” instead of “minority,” or “she has autism” instead of “she is autistic.”
  2. “Minority” isn’t a great term to use anymore, instead use descriptors for racial or ethnic identities that don’t imply marginalization or inferiority of a group.
  3. These broad categories are acceptable: American Indian and Native American, Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI,) Black and African American (terms are not necessarily interchangeable,) White, and Latinx.
  4. Latinx is a gender neutral term to describe Latino people across the gender spectrum. It’s gaining popularity but is still fairly new. Latino and Latina are widely acceptable. Use Latino/a/x instead of Hispanic.
  5. Use identifying demographic information if it is pertinent to your communications. Doesn’t matter that the person in your communications uses a wheelchair? Then don’t mention it. Not a big deal that someone is your communications is from Guatemala? Leave it out. Just because someone is different than you doesn’t mean you need to highlight the difference in writing.
  6. Geographic indicators should not be used interchangeably with religion. For example, Muslim is not interchangeable with Arab.
  7. Don’t pluralize disability; that implies that a person experiences more than one disability.
  8. Don’t use “hero” or “victim” language. People who experience disabilities don’t view themselves as heroic or inspiring for going about their daily lives. Alternatively, don’t portray people experiencing disabilities as victims who “suffer from” or “struggle with” their disability. A disability is simply a part of their life.
  9. Don’t refer to people experiencing disabilities as “the disabled.”
  10. Avoid gendered language whenever possible (which is actually almost all of the time.” Use the neutral pronoun “they” in written communications, or use someone’s name.
  11. Always use a transgender person’s chosen name and pronouns. Not sure which pronouns someone uses? Just ask! Nervous about asking? Use their name or use “they.”

People experience multiple identities simultaneously and no one’s experience is exactly the same as another person’s. Everyone is privileged in some ways and disadvantaged in others. The tips highlighted in this post are relevant today but they may change in the future. Terms once popular decades ago are downright offensive today. Language evolves so follow the trends and keep up with what is acceptable and widely used by the people you’re looking to describe.

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