Inclusive Language Guide

In educational research we use standardized terms when discussing students. Using common terminology when we speak about different groups shows that we speak the language of academia.

Why do we have an Inclusive Language Guide?

In education we use standardized terms when discussing students. Using common terminology when we speak about different groups shows that we speak the language of academia. However, these standardized terms often perpetuate inequity and most often “others” certain groups. When we use these terms in work that is intended to disrupt the status quo, we create a contradictory message between our words and our overall intentions. This guide will help us develop an inclusive, shared vocabulary, allowing our words to match the true intentions of our work.

Language is constantly changing, and we do not have all the answers

Language is constantly changing. The terms in this guide could soon be out of date. Even though this guide is comprehensive, there are groups, identities, terms, and nuances we’ve most likely missed. We know this language will not resonate with everyone, and that we will make mistakes as we continue to learn.  

We realize that not everyone will agree or identify with the terms we’ve used. These are terms we have chosen to create a shared language for our work around diversity, equity, and inclusion.

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Person-First Language – different approaches

According to, “person-first language puts the person before the disability, and describes what a person has, not who a person is.” Additionally, some people believe that the terms “disability” and “disabled” are offensive and should be avoided at all costs, but many people believe that avoiding these terms stigmatizes them when they shouldn’t be.
Some people self-identify as “disabled” or a “disabled person” and reject person-first language. Additionally, in discussions on neurodiversity, many in the autism community suggest that using person-first language makes autism seem like an illness, rather than an important part of a person’s identity or natural part of their neurology. Instead, advocates suggest using language like “autistic individual” or “autistic person.” Many people simply want accurate representation.
Allow people to feel safe declaring how they self-identify.

First person Examples:

  • Student with a disability
  • Student with an intellectual disability
  • Student who uses a wheelchair
  • Student with low-vision
  • Student with a physical disability
  • Student who is deaf
  • Student with a mental illness
  • Students living with depression
  • Students with vision impairment

Language to Avoid

  • Do NOT use handicapped
  • Do NOT use special needs
  • Do NOT refer to groups in terms of nouns. For example, Do NOT say: the blind, the deaf, the mentally ill, etc.
Why shouldn’t you use the term “Special Needs”?

There are negative connotations associated with the term “special needs.” This term came into use because of the misconception that the terms “disabled” and “disability” were inappropriate to use. Special needs was adapted as a euphemism. Many people assume the word “special” in this context means “good,” but it has been twisted into an insult by some.
In legal terms, people with disabilities have certain rights under law, but this same distinction does not always apply when utilizing the term special needs. Lisette Torres-Gerald, board secretary for the National Coalition for Latinxs with Disabilities states in a USA Today article on the topic: “My needs are not ‘special;’ they are the same, human needs that everyone else has, and I should be able to fully participate in society just as much as the next person.”

Rethinking the phrase “Serving Students with Disabilities”

Recently, the education field has moved away from the narrative of “serving” students with disabilities toward the language of “teaching” or “educating” students with disabilities. The language of “serving” and “service” had the unwitting effect of making it seem that these students are primarily meant to be “tended to” and not educated and that teachers are accountable for students’ comfort and not their learning.

Use Example: Let’s improve the ways teachers educate students with disabilities.

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