WGU Labs offers a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Audit as a service. We help education institutions identify equity gaps at their schools and create actionable plans to close them. To help put actions behind our words, I created a company-wide Inclusive Language Guide to ensure that we not only use this language in our research with students and institutions, but also our daily interactions with each other.

Academic research often seeks to shed light on disparities, reveal systematic biases, and close equity gaps. But sometimes the language we use to discuss people from historically underrepresented groups and their experiences can contradict our message and intentions. Creating an inclusive language guide can help research teams develop a shared vocabulary focused on inclusion, allowing our words to match the true intentions of our writing.

As Jason Thompson, WGU’s Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion states, choosing to use inclusive language is about being respectful. Many times, people argue that they are uncertain about the correct terms to use, or they suggest there are too many terms to remember. But Thompson suggests that if our goal is respect, then the list of terms is never too long.

When I first sat down to write this guide, I got very overwhelmed and thought to myself: “Why did I volunteer to do this? I’m in over my head.” There are a lot of terms out there, and it’s easy to feel like you’re saying the wrong thing, but at the end of the day, this is important work! We can’t let this fear stop us, and there are many resources to help.

Here are 7 lessons I learned from creating an Inclusive Language Guide for WGU Labs.

LESSON ONE: There’s no solid right or wrong answer

Exception to this lesson: offensive terms are always wrong, folks.

There will be opposing viewpoints to every term you choose to use in your guide. For example, there is a push to use person-first language when discussing disability, placing the person before the disability. So you might say: “people with disabilities.”

However, many in this community reject person-first language and want people to just call them “disabled” or a “disabled person.”

So what do you do? Explain why you chose  the term you’re using and discuss the opposing viewpoints to that term that you found. This will help your team understand the possible implications or pushback from using this term, so they can acknowledge that they understand the depth of these language discussions and ultimately recognize that language is not static and all terms are not 100% accepted by all people and we need to respect that.

LESSON TWO: It’s ok to admit that you’re still learning

Even with all the research we put into this guide, I know we don’t have all the answers; we will get things wrong, so our learning should not end once the document has been published and distributed throughout the company. We can and should change this document as we continue to refine our knowledge on this topic. I added a section in the guide that specifically states this and we are planning to update this language at designated points during the year.

LESSON THREE: Find language that allows research participants to self identify

An important takeaway from my research is that we should always ask people how they choose to self-identify. Often on surveys, you’ll see that researchers add in a category titled “Other.” This is an attempt to allow people to self-identify. However, using the term “Other” creates connotations that unintentionally serve to dehumanize and diminish the uniqueness of a person’s identity.

To challenge this language in academic research, we need to find ways to allow participants to self-identify, but in a way that allows us to gain solid research findings. That method may not be the same for everyone, but it’s important that we find a solution that aligns with our values and people’s preferences so that they are being accurately represented in our research.

LESSON FOUR: Ask for help/run your language findings past other people

As I researched, I shared my findings with others on the team. This led to discussions about their personal experiences or experiences with their family and friends about the information I’d found. After hearing these perspectives, I went to the research to find more information on the terms they shared. I took these discussions into account when creating my explanations for the language I chose. It helped me to get outside of myself and my own research to understand how these terms were landing in the “real world.”

LESSON FIVE: Sometimes the exact language you’re looking for may not exist … yet!

When I first started researching terms, I realized that I was looking for sources to tell me specifically what to say and what specific words to use. However, this was not always the case. Sometimes, the terms research suggested for describing students still didn’t seem to sit right. So, utilizing the knowledge I gained over my months of research, I created terminology that we would use at Labs for some terms. Then, I ran these new terms by other people on the team. If the term I created didn’t land right with them, we worked through phrasing or I selected other terms.

LESSON SIX: Take notes during work meetings about language questions

Company meetings were places where I gathered information about the types of terms and language I would include in the guide. If someone brought up a question about the language they should use in a certain instance, I took note of it, and made sure to address it in the guide. Also, if other employees know you’re creating a guide, they might ask you specifically to look into certain terms that you can add.

LESSON SEVEN: It’s going to take you a LONG time to complete

It took me about 3 months to complete the guide for two reasons 1) I like learning and was enjoying the process of discovery, 2) It was important to me to explain the “why” of all my choices. To do this responsibly, I read multiple sources for each term to gather consensus. As a result, I ended up with a very long guide. I cut back, being strategic, and focusing mainly on the populations our team works with the most, so that the guide did not become so overwhelming that it would go unused. My guide is still pretty long, but I have no regrets, if it helps us develop a shared vocabulary or start necessary conversations at our organization.

Overall, creating an inclusive language guide was worth it, and you should consider creating one for your organization, too. By creating this guide, we at Labs can ensure that we are intentional and respectful in the conduct of our research and in our discussions about all learners.

Do you want to understand and change the systems that lead to inequity? WGU Labs will engage with your data, students, faculty, and staff to surface actionable recommendations that ensure more equitable outcomes for your learners. Interested in learning more about our Equity Audits? Book a Call.