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Inclusive Language Best Practices

Inclusive Language Best Practices

The University Counsel Office encourages inclusive language in communication at Grand Valley State University. Inclusive language refers to language that creates an environment of respect for diversity. These are guidelines aimed at advancing policy writing and other forms of communication at the University consistent with Chapter 1 of the Administrative Manual, which outlines the University's commitment to inclusiveness and equal opportunity principles approved by the Board of Trustees.

Faculty and staff are encouraged to refer to these guidelines before submitting proposed policies to the Senior Management Team for approval. The entire Grand Valley State University community can use the suggestions demonstrated in all forms of communication.

The Inclusive Language Best Practices are not exhaustive but represent strides towards helping the University utilize language that will convey respect and avoid unintended offensive language. These guidelines will also provide examples of inappropriate and recommended usage of words and gestures as it relates to race and ethnicity, gender, disabilities, age and sexual orientation.

If you have any questions related to the Inclusive Language Best Practices please contact the Grand Valley Manual Administrator in the University Counsel Office at (616) 331-2067 or email

I. Race and Ethnicity

  • Avoid identifying people by race or ethnic group unless it is relevant.

The rule should apply to individuals, regardless of race or ethnicity.

Inappropriate: Maria Duran, a Hispanic physics professor, has been promoted to an associate professor.

Recommended: Maria Duran, a physics professor, has been promoted to an associate professor.

  • Avoid the term non-white, which sets up white culture as the standard by which all other cultures should be judged. Avoid cultural disadvantaged and cultural deprived. These terms imply that the dominant culture is superior to others or that other groups lack a culture.
  • Refer to individuals as members of a minority group or specify the minority group (Latino, etc.) when identify is pertinent.

Example: Women and minorities are encouraged to apply.

Preferred: Women and members of minority groups are encouraged to apply.

  • Avoid words, images or situations that reinforce stereotypes, even stereotypes that, on the surface, appear to be positive.


Not surprisingly, the Asian-American students did best in the math contest.

Jews make better doctors and lawyers.

  • Stay attuned to the current terminology by which racial and ethnic groups refer to themselves (from Negro to African American, from Oriental to Asian-American, etc.) national newspapers and television news are good indicators of preferred terminology. Also, ask people what term they prefer.
  • Attention must be paid to the punctuation used in referring to racial ethnic groups. The terms African American and Asian American, for instance, are nouns and should not be hyphenated. When these terms are used as modifiers they should be hyphenated.

Examples: She is African American.

  • People who trace their ancestry through the Caribbean or Central and South America may identify themselves as coming from any one of a number of different cultures and ethnic groups. For instance, the terms Hispanic, Latino/a, Chicano/a and Puertorriqueno/a all have different meanings. Many people commonly described as Hispanic prefer the term Latino or Latina. Some people with Spanish-sounding surnames may have indigenous Indian, German or Asian ancestry or prefer to be referred to by their nationality (Colombia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, etc.). People whose ancestors originally populated North America may want to be identified with specific communities, such as Seminole or Miccosukee, or they may prefer to be referred to as American Indian or Native American rather that Indian. If in doubt, ask.
  • Keep in mind that the term Americans should not be used exclusively for U.S. citizens. People in Central America, South America and Canada are also technically American. Also, be aware of the difference in the words discovered and explored when referring to the exploration of the Americas.
  • Be sensitive to religion when referring to various ethnic groups. Do not make assumptions. Just as not all Arabs are Muslim, most nationality and ethnicities will embody different religious practices.
  • Avoid stereotyping a race, nationality or ethnic group with a specific religion.
  • Do not patronize or give token attention to members of racial or ethnic groups. Exaggerated focus on accomplishments or insincere references to concerns implies that these people are not normally successful or accomplished or are not considered to be in the mainstream of society.

II. Gender

  • Include all people in general reference by substituting gender- bias words and phrases for gender-neutral words.

Example Recommended
mankind, man-to-man defense, man the operation, manpower, layman's terms, man hours, manmade people, humanity, human beings, one-on-one defense, staff the operation, labor, human resources, staff time, staff support, ordinary terms, staff hours, hours manufactured, synthetic, artificial

  • Communicate to everyone by including both male and female reference points. Don't presume marital or familial relationships.

Example Recommended
You and your spouse are invited. Boyfriends/girlfriends Dear Sir Faculty and wives You and your guest are invited... Friends, guest, partners Dear Sir or Madam Dear colleague Faculty, spouses and guests

  • Avoid gender-biased pronouns by: Dropping pronouns that signify gender and restructuring the statement.

Example: Each student should hand his term paper.

Recommended: Each student should hand in a term paper.

  • Changing to plural construction.

Example: A nurse cares for her patient.

Recommended: Nurses care for their patients.

  • Replacing masculine or feminine pronouns with one or you.

Example: Each student should hand in his term paper.

Recommended: You should hand in your term paper.

  • Avoid awkward constructions as he (she), s/he, (s) he or him/her. Such constructions, which can be easily reworded, imply that women are considered to be the subject only as an afterthought.

Example: As a professor emeritus, s/he is entitled to a reduced parking fee.

Recommended: A professor emeritus is entitled to a reduced parking fee.

  • Use parallelism to refer to women and men equally and to make references consistent.

Example: Professor Bob Brown and Julie Smith are new faculty.

Recommended: Professors Bob Brown and Julie Smith are new Faculty.

  • Woman is often used incorrectly or inappropriately as an adjective. Consider using female or eliminating the adjective if it is not necessary.

Example: Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman vice president candidate.

Recommended: Geraldine Ferraro was the first female vice president candidate.

Example: Ellen Smith became the woman president of Hometown University on Sept. 1, 1993.

Recommended: Ellen Smith became the president of Hometown University on Sept. 1, 1993.

  • If a direct quotation (derived from research or an interview) could offend or inappropriately exclude women or men and is not essential to your document, consider eliminating, paraphrasing or replacing it.
  • Use neutral words for man and woman in job titles or descriptions.

Example: Recommended
chairman policemen sales girl spokesmen lady lawyer founding fathers ombudsman chair police officer sales clerk spokesperson lawyer founders ombuds officer

  • Base communication on relevant qualities, not on sex. Avoid sexual stereotyping.

Example: A brilliant female researcher.

Recommended: A brilliant researcher.

  • Avoid any reference to marital status or parental status unless it is directly relevant.
  • When choosing photographs or illustrations, consider the balance of women and men and their actions. Nonverbal messages conveyed by portraying men standing and women sitting, men gesturing at smiling women, men pointing to or working with lab and other equipment while women passively observe imply status differences. When possible, work with artist and photographers to ensure proper balance.

Address individual women and men by last names and appropriate titles. Address mixed groups of women and men with gender neutral or gender inclusive terms.
Professor Mr. or Ms. (unless Miss or Mrs.) Dr., Officer or representative / Senator Colleagues Professors Students Committee members Counselors Ladies and gentlemen

  • Avoid comments on physical appearance.


She has nice legs

Her hair looks pretty

He is a snappy dresser

The pregnant professor won an award

  • Jokes and remarks with sexual content, or jokes and remarks that play on sexual stereotypes are out of place in the academic setting.
  • Comments, gestures and touching hat can offend others or make them uncomfortable have no place in academia.
  • Treat women and men with equal dignity, mindful of their professional accomplishments.

III. Disabilities

  • The terms impairment, disability and handicap are not synonymous. Be sensitive to the meaning of each.
  • Impairment is a physiological condition.

Example: Arthritis is an impairment in which tissues of the joints are damaged.

  • A disability is the consequence of an impairment. A disability may or may not be handicapping.

Example: Disabilities resulting from arthritis include difficulty in bending the spine or limbs, and thus difficulty in walking or performing tasks.

  • A handicap is the social implication of a disability; a condition or barrier imposed by society, the environment or oneself. The term should not be used to describe a disability.

Example: People with arthritic knees and hips may be handicapped by the absence of elevators in older buildings.

  • Disabilities may be the result of either injury or disease - often a disease long past. People with disabilities should not automatically be viewed as sick or having a disease.
  • Use the word disability when referring to a person or people with disabilities. Do not use the word handicapped. A disabling condition may or may not be handicapped. For instance, someone who uses a wheelchair has a physical disability. This person is handicapped when faced with a set of stairs when there is no ramp alongside.
  • When the context calls for discussion of people with and without disabilities, use the term people without disabilities rather than normal or able-bodied. Normal implies that by comparison, people with disabilities are abnormal; able-bodied suggests that all people with disabilities are unable to compensate for them disabilities.
  • Put people first not their disability.

Example: The visually impairment students used a special keyboard.

Preferred: The student with visual impairments uses a special keyboard.

  • Emphasize the person, not the disability. Use people with disabilities as a first description; then, if necessary, disabled person in later references.
  • Omit, if possible, any mention of someone's disability if it is not pertinent to the story.


Irrelevant: The new instructor, whose bout with polio left him on crutches, will teach two sections of history.

Relevant: The author of the text on legal rights for people with disabilities writes from experience. She has had paraplegia since childhood.

  • Because people are not conditions, do not label individuals as the disabled, epileptics, post polios or with other names of conditions. Instead, refer to a person with cerebral palsy or someone who has epilepsy.
  • When writing about people with disabilities, choose words that carry nonjudgmental connotations and are accurate descriptions.
  • Patient connotes sickness and a person passively waiting to be served. Most people with disabilities are no sicker than other people.

Avoid Instead
wheelchair bound confined to a wheelchair homebound employment unfortunate pitiful poor deaf dumb crip deformed Avoid language that portrays people with disabilities as either unfortunate, helpless victims or, at the other extreme, as courageous super-humans use a wheelchair employed in the home courageous, brave, inspirational (use with care) Whenever possible, depict the typical achiever who has a disability, not just the super achieving

  • When necessary, ask people with disabilities to provide technically correct information and assistance to ensure that stereotypes are avoided.
  • In photos or illustrations, depict people with disabilities in everyday situations-work, home, play-and show them interacting with people without disabilities.
  • Do not focus on wheelchairs, crutches, other adaptive equipment or assistive dogs.
  • Show workers with disabilities in non-stereotypical jobs. Cast people with disabilities in background scenes and in roles that do not focus on their disabilities.
  • Show people with disabilities doing ordinary activities, such as cooking paying bills, shopping and parenting.
  • Integrate a person's disability into that person's total identity. This might include showing someone with a disability experiencing the same pain or pleasure that other derive from competitive sports, recreational activities, work, parenting, education and community involvement.
  • Include people with disabilities in advertising.


  • Don't assume people with a disability need your help. Ask before helping them.
  • It is appropriate to shake hands when introduced to a person with a disability. People with limited hand use or who wear an artificial limb do shake hands.
  • Make eye contact and speck directly to the person, not through their companion.
  • Avoid actions and words that suggest the person should be treated differently. It is OK to invite a person in a wheelchair to go for a walk or to ask a blind person if he sees what you mean.
  • Treat people with disabilities with the same respect and consideration that you have for everyone else.
  • Consider the needs of people with disabilities when planning events.
  • Avoid glorifying the accomplishment of people with disabilities.
  • When speaking to a person with hearing loss, ask where it would be best to sit to ease the conversation.
  • If an interpreter is present, speak to the person being interviewed rather than to the interpreter.
  • If the person is lip reading: look directly at them, speak slowly and clearly, do not exaggerate your lip movements or shout (especially if you notice a hearing aid).
  • Speak expressively because the person will rely on your facial expressions, gesture and body movements to
  • When speaking to a person with vision disabilities always identify yourself and introduce anyone else present.
  • When offering a handshake, say something like, "Shall we shake hands?"
  • When offering seating, place the person's hand on the back or arm of the seat.
  • Let the person know if you move or need to end the conversation.
  • When speaking to a person with speech difficulties ask short questions that require short answers or a nod of the head when you can.
  • Do not pretend to understand if you do not.
  • Try rephrasing what you wish to communicate.
  • When speaking to a person who uses a wheelchair or crutches do not lean on a person's wheelchair.
  • Do not patronize people who use wheelchair by patting them on the head.
  • When speaking for more than a few minutes with a person who uses a wheelchair or crutches, sit down or kneel to place yourself at the person's eye level.
  • Do not assume the person is not listening just because you are getting no verbal or visual feedback. Ask them whether they understand or agrees.
  • Do not assume you have to explain everything.

  • Offer to read written material aloud.

  • If possible, combine visual stimuli with oral presentations.

  • Allow for a longer response time. Just because they do not answer immediately doesn't mean the correct answer will not come.

  • Do not skip steps in presenting information. Not everyone can fill the gaps.

  • When assisting a person who is blind

  • When you meet a blind person, do not assume your help is needed. You many offer assistance, but it should not be forced

  • Speak directly to the person

  • When giving directions, be specific. Use the terms left and right. Street names and building descriptions are of very little value.

  • If asked to guide people who are blind, offer you arm instead of grabbing theirs.

  • If an assistive dog is present, remember it is a working dog and should not be treated as a pet.

  • When seating people who are blind, place their hands on the back of the chair. This will allow the person to judge the size and the location of the chair.

  • If you are eating with a person who is blind, offer to read the menu (including prices). If help is needed, your offer will be acknowledged or the server will be asked to provide assistance.

  • If you help the person handle money, identify the bills by denomination separately as they are given. Coins can usually be differentiated by touch.

  • It is helpful to identify yourself as you approach the person who is bind. Your assistance may be more freely sought if you are recognized.
  • When in doubt regarding assisting a person who is blind, ask.
  • Be descriptive. Help orient people with visual impairments. If walking, tell them if they have to step up or down and if a door is on the right or left.
  • You don't have to speak loudly to people who are blind. Most can hear fine.
  • When appropriate, offer to read written information for a person with visual impairment.

IV. Age

  • Refer to a person's age only when it is relevant to the medium or the message.

Irrelevant: The researchers, ages 56 and 60, won a grant from NIH.

Relevant: Patricia Schmidt, 12, will study at UCF this spring. She is the younger student ever to enroll at the university.

  • Do not assumer older people are less intellectually, physically, or emotionally able than other are groups.

  • Do no underestimate the capabilities of younger people simply on the basis or their age.

  • Darleen Hampton, 62, still puts in a full day in Admission Services.

  • Do not use patronizing language.

Example: The sweet little old lady enjoyed the pep rally.

Recommended: The older woman enjoyed the pep rally.

  • When attempting to represent a range of experiences or viewpoints, include people of diverse ages.

V. Sexual Orientation

  • Sexual orientation and sexuality as terms are preferred to sexual preference.

  • The term gay is used to refer to both men and women, but some women prefer the term lesbian.

  • When referring to sexual orientation, as a matter of principle, refer to societal groups in the way members or each group prefer. Ask people what term they prefer.

  • Do not assume someone's sexual identity based on mannerisms or occupation.

  • Avoid using the terms gay lifestyle or lesbian lifestyle.

  • Do not discuss someone else's sexual orientation. Individuals have rights to privacy.

  • Do not assume that everyone involved or attending a particular activity or events is heterosexual.

  • If it is necessary to refer to the partner of a gay or lesbian person, ask what term is preferred. Common terms are partner, significant other, lover and spouse.

  • Gay community is an umbrella term used in the same manner that phrase such as the Italian- American community are used to described groups with similar, but not identical, backgrounds and social agendas. The term may be used to refer to both men and women, but lesbian and gay