Inclusive Language Guide

Inclusive Writing Basic Tips

De-stigmatizing or Virtue Signaling?

When discussing students, we often use adjectives or modifiers to categorize or place them as a member within a certain group. For example, we might say, “African American students, high-risk students, students with disabilities, etc.” Before choosing to use a modifier, ask yourself if this word is important to your overall message. What is your reasoning for adding it to the text? Do you say “my Black friend” but do not use a modifier for your white friends? In many cases, we can and should simply just refer to people as “people” or students as “students” without any adjectives or modifiers.

Think of it this way: imagine you’re talking to an acquaintance, and they say, “I had to meet my friend who’s in a wheelchair for lunch.” The fact that your acquaintance’s friend uses a wheelchair is irrelevant to their story. Think about why you mention you friend’s wheelchair – is it because you want to normalize and de-stigmatize speaking about disabilities? Or are you attempting to openly express your morality or character for having a friend in a wheelchair?

Of course, there are important moments in research where these modifiers are needed and can be used respectfully, but we need to think about our intentions when we write:

  • By adding a modifier, who are you helping? Who are you unintentionally hurting?
  • How are you positioning yourself or your institution in the narrative?
  • Are you letting traditional research conventions (e.g. validated scales, standard reporting or demographic practices, common terminology like “high-risk”) outweigh your mission to respectfully address and represent others in your writing?
  • After writing a passage, do we step back and consider the ways the modifiers we are using are landing on our audience or the assumptions our word choice supports?

Rethink the Narrative of the "Student Voice"

Sometimes in education, we see narratives suggesting that a student’s participation in a survey or research study gives them a voice. Although it may not be our intention, these terms and phrases can imply that before we made an effort, these individuals did not have a voice or were incapable of using it on their own. We cannot empower or give voice to anyone because they already possess these traits. What we can do, instead, is help people use the power and voice they already have.

Instead of discussing the ways we “uncover” the student voice, we should restructure our narrative to state:

  • In our research, we strive to create an environment where all voices can be heard.
  • In our study, we strive to create conditions where students can exercise their own power.

Problematize Systems, Not Students

The National Center for Institutional Diversity states: “Deficit thinking blames the students who are left behind for their predicament, rather than the policies and practices that perpetuate oppressive and inequitable systems.” This statement also applies to our writing about equity. Here’s a writing
tip: after writing a passage discussing disparities in student outcomes, ask yourself or a co-worker, is this messaging placing the sole responsibility on students or on an institution’s policies/practices? As you revise your writing, think about the messaging in these terms: What do these institutions miss when they do not structure their systems in ways to support the assets diverse learners bring?

Survey Demographic Items

When creating a survey, use the following language examples if possible to ask participants how they choose to self-identify. This is especially important when gathering information on personal experience on diversity, equity, and inclusion. If you must use categories that are validated and needed for longitudinal demographic data (e.g., IPEDS, census), acknowledge in the survey itself that the categories are not an accurate reflection of all identities and it is not optimal.

Refer to different sections of this guide for demographic examples. If you need to know specific infomation, identify why in your research plan. If the research does not need specific information, consider requesting broader information.

DO NOT add the option “Other” for participants and their identities. Even when creating a write-in option, avoid using the term “Other” proceeding the write-in line (see the example below for alternatives). The term “Other” often feels dehumanizing.