Inclusive language guide

Prepared by Felicity Thyer and the Diversity and Inclusion team

While language changes constantly, and according to context, here are some principles for using language that does not demean or discriminate against anyone.

Principles of inclusive language

  • Only refer to personal attributes or characteristics when relevant and in context. Use language that focuses on the person and reflects individuality. Don’t classify or stereotype people based on their association or identity with a group or culture.
  • Use language that focuses on the strengths, abilities, knowledge and capacities of people or groups rather than on deficiencies or supposed failings.
  • Don’t make assumptions about people or their characteristics based on stereotypes or limited information.
  • Be conscious of implications—don’t let your choice of language exclude, disparage or trivialise others.
  • Empower people to speak for themselves—if you need to speak on behalf of a group of people, consult as widely as possible to ensure that your language is reflective of the group.
  • Ensure the language and the delivery of your information, learning materials or publications is accessible to a diverse audience with diverse needs. See Deakin’s Digital Centre of Excellence on Accessibility for more information.
  • It can be hard to confront those who use non-inclusive language or inappropriate stereotypes, especially if those people are more powerful. However speaking out, addressing stereotypes and myths and suggesting more appropriate language can increase our own confidence, help promote inclusion and discourage repeat behaviour.2
  • Be aware of context – sometimes people will use terms about themselves or their friends that may be considered inappropriate and derogatory when used by others. If in doubt, ask what terms are preferred and then respect those preferences.

Referenced in Words at Work: Building inclusion through the power of language, Diversity Council Australia, 2016.

Academic integrity poster explaining how to combat systemic racism by using appropriate terminology and challenging stereotypes

Addressing stereotypes and myths

It can be hard to confront those who use non-inclusive language or inappropriate stereotypes, especially if those people are more powerful. However speaking out, addressing stereotypes and myths and suggesting more appropriate language can increase our own confidence, help promote inclusion and discourage repeat behaviour.2

Be aware of context – sometimes people will use terms about themselves or their friends that may be considered inappropriate and derogatory when used by others. If in doubt, ask what terms are preferred and then respect those preferences.

Physical appearance

Physical appearance can mark us as different to or the same as other people. A person’s identity, as portrayed through their appearance, is not relevant to their ability to work or study. Avoid denigrating labels or stereotyping groups by their physical characteristics or describing people by physical features which may have negative connotations. Make sure that the voices of people who don’t look similar to you are still heard.

Age

Using language to refer to age can reinforce stereotypes, particularly when we talk about people in terms of their ‘generation’ (such as boomers, Gen X or Millennials). Avoid using the term ‘mature-age student’ unless this is relevant (for example when referring to programs targeted at this group). If it is relevant to refer to age, ensure you do so neutrally without using terms that assign stereotypical characteristics about a person’s physical or intellectual capacity. If someone’s age is not relevant, don’t mention it. If it is relevant, discuss it respectfully.

Don’t stereotype any age group by their supposed technical skills, financial habits or lifestyle. While stereotypes may seem relatively harmless they can still offend, patronise and over-simplify real life. Even seemingly ‘positive’ stereotypes fail to recognise individual differences among members of an entire community or group.

If it is relevant to refer to age, use more specific or more neutral terms such as ‘over 45s’ or ‘under 30s’. Refer to ‘students’, not ‘kids’.

Families and living arrangements

The modern family is an evolving concept. There are single parents, same-sex parents, blended families, families with adoptive parents, grandparents or carers, children who are part of a family in foster care arrangements and children conceived using surrogacy. When communicating, we need to recognise this diversity of family structures.

Be mindful of these issues when using the following terms.

  • While some people use the term extended family to include grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, for many cultures this is just family.
  • The terms family or families are more inclusive of diverse family structures than ‘parents’. In many culturally diverse communities, primary responsibilities for children can often be shared across more family members, including aunts, grandparents and others. And be mindful that families don’t always live together, such as families with divorced parents. A couple with no children also constitutes a family.
  • Not all children have a mum and dad. Some have two mums or two dads or live with another caregiver.
  • Not everyone accompanying a child is the parent or identifies as a parent – for example grandparents and step-parents who may not identify as parents. If you don’t know the relationship, use the term caregiver or carer.

Financially disadvantaged background

We are not always aware when people are struggling financially or whether they have overcome financial hardship in their lives. Be aware that people you are working with – students or staff – don’t all have the same experience with finances. Some people may not have financially literacy skills, may not have savings, may not have a strong credit history or may even be having problems repaying debts. It is important to recognise our own financial privilege where relevant.

Instead of referring to ‘disadvantaged’ areas, schools or students, use ‘financially’ disadvantaged to be clear what you are talking about. Use ‘financially advantaged’ where relevant to recognise the advantages that some people have.

Students who are experiencing financial hardship may struggle to complete work on time as they may have to wait to borrow books for their assignments if they can’t afford to buy these. They may also be working to support their study and having difficulties balancing work and study. They may not have extra time to put into some activities and may not have the flexibility of financially advantaged students to get engaged with relevant extra-curricular activities.

Examples of preferred words or phrases

  • people experiencing financial disadvantage, instead of the disadvantaged/the poor
  • not a financially advantaged area …, instead of disadvantaged area
  • student with financial hardship, instead of low SES student
  • supporting parent, instead of single mum on a pension

For more information on teaching students from a financially disadvantaged background see Teaching LSES students.

Getting it right …

This guide contains information about various groups and advice on appropriate language to be used when referring to these groups. But of course some people will be members of more than one of these groups and that is where they can sometimes fall between the cracks. How does a student with a disability who is a member of the LGBTIQ+ community identify with each of these groups?

Care must be taken to make sure that references to any of these groups does not exclude people who may be members of more than one group. Assume that some members of the LGBTIQ+ community have a disability and assume that some people who are culturally and linguistically diverse are gay. Assume that some people with a disability will be gender diverse. Look for opportunities to practice inclusivity in every situation and, if you are unsure, ask someone what terms or language they use.

… and getting it wrong

Sometimes you will get it right and sometimes you will get it wrong. If you do make a mistake, apologise and move on. Don’t over-apologise – it may make the other person uncomfortable. Learn from your mistakes and use this to inform your future practice. Help others to use inclusive practices by modelling these yourself.

Further information

For more information on using inclusive language please see the following links:

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