Accessibility inspired: Inclusive language

We’re working to create better experiences for everyone by taking an accessibility-inspired approach to all facets of our work. As part of our journey to embrace accessibility in design, we’re sharing a series of insights that document our process and learning. 

In our last post, we talked about text readability and legibility. In this article, we’re going to talk about inclusive language and how it contributes to a more accessible reading experience.

What is writing for inclusion?

Writing for inclusion means using language that truly reflects and respects diverse identities, voices and experiences. This includes using terminology, examples, and perspectives that people from different backgrounds, experiences, and abilities can recognize, understand and connect with.

Why it matters

When we create content in a way that is both inclusive and accessible, we have the power to increase someone’s understanding of a concept, spark joy and reach a large audience. Beyond that, using language that respects people’s identities and experiences builds trust and improves their overall experience.

Writing for your audience

Inclusive writing draws on principles as human-centered design. In our projects at Habanero, we put people at the heart of the process with our empathetic research process. In empathetic research, we seek to understand what people are thinking, feeling, and questioning as they make their way through their days. This ensures we design experiences that meet their real-life needs.

The same approach informs content writing. Empathetic research can help you understand who your audience is, so you use language that authentically reflects their lived experience and connects them with the information they want to know. Ask yourself:

How does your audience describe themselves and their experiences?

Individual preferences can vary greatly. For example, when it comes to disability, some people favour person-first language (e.g., “person with a disability”), where the emphasis is on the person, not their disability. Others use identity-first language (e.g., “disabled person”), because it acknowledges that the disability is integral to their personhood. Both approaches are okay, depending on the context. Choose the language that respects the preferences of your audience, if possible.

Pro tip

Person-first language applies to situations outside of disability, so do your research and try to understand the impact of your choices. If you’re thoughtful about the decisions you make and understand the rationale, it will be easier to revisit and update your usage as the terminology evolves.

What language does your audience understand and feel more comfortable with?

Inclusive language is about communicating in a way that your audience can understand quickly and easily. Consider what level of expertise, knowledge or interest your audience has in the subject you’re writing about and pay attention to the words they use. Follow plain language best practices – like using active voice, familiar words, and short sentences – to make sure your writing is clear, concise and accessible.

Pro tip

If you write using plain language, it’s not going to make you sound less credible. In fact, you’ll be more likely of reaching a wider audience because your content is easier to understand! Check out Shane Snow’s analysis on best-selling authors and what readability score they have.

Understanding bias

We all carry bias. Culture, community, family and our own personal experiences all shape our point of view. When our biases are unexamined, we can tend to normalize our own perspective and, without even realizing it, frame others’ experiences as abnormal or less valid. Or, we might use concepts or language from other cultures or communities in a way that is disrespectful.

It’s hard to see our own bias, so it’s important to keep listening and learning from other people, especially those who have been historically under-represented. Remember, language is always evolving, and the impact of phrases changes over time. Keeping yourself informed will help you to create content that respects and resonates with a more diverse audience.

Here are some things to be mindful of:

Appropriative language

Cultural appropriation can happen if you use or imitate language or concepts from another (usually marginalized or non-dominant) culture or community.

You’ve probably come across an online quiz that says it can determine your spirit animal if you answer a few questions. It might feel cool to find out that you’re a lion, but this digital experience uses a concept that belongs to Indigenous people and twists it into a catchphrase.

Some of the most popular internet slang originates from African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Once a phrase goes mainstream, people can lose sight of (or ignore) its roots. They might use it incorrectly or dilute its meaning. Before capitalizing on a meme-able phrase, take some time to uncover its origins, then consider if your brand or organization can use it respectfully.

Language rooted in historical oppression

Some phrases that have been in common use for a long time are rooted in historical racism and violence. Examples of this include “nitty gritty” and “cakewalk.” Over time, the original context has been lost, so we don’t realize the meaning these words carry. It’s a good idea to look up the meaning of any common expression to make sure you understand the history and meaning of the words.

Gender-specific language

Your choice of words may also be unintentionally creating gender bias in your content. Here’s a few examples of this in action:

  • Instead of manpower, consider using staffing or staff hours.
  • Instead of both genders, consider using all genders.

There’s also been lots of research done when it comes to understanding language and its gender tone. There are words that on their own, are not marginalizing, but when used together may create an overall tone that impacts inclusion. Here’s a few examples of this in action:

  • Words like exhaustive, enforcement, and fearless are commonly associated with being more masculine
  • Words like in touch with and transparent are commonly associated with being more feminine

Pro tip

According to Textio’s research on inclusive recruiting, content that is neutral in tone tends to recruit the most diverse candidate pool on average.

Creating your own living guidelines

Language is always evolving, so it’s our responsibility to constantly adapt to new ways of writing to support inclusive language. Luckily, there are some great resources online that get updated frequently which you can reference:

  • The Language Portal of Canada – Writing tools and guidelines for anyone who wants to improve their writing in English and French (not just public service employees). It features an inclusive writing guide and a gender and sexual diversity glossary.
  • – The US government’s plain language website guides you through the writing process, from research and planning to writing and testing, providing a solid set of principles to follow at each stage.
  • APA Inclusive Language Guide – A detailed and comprehensive writing guide that covers terms related to equity, identity, class, race, sex, gender, disability and more. It also explains the origins of terms and offers suitable alternatives.

While these resources offer a tonne of information to get you started, you’ll likely need to create your own set of guidelines tailored to your organization and audience. So, take what works for you and build on it, making conscious decisions about the language you use and why. Then you and your teams can revisit it at regular intervals to see if you need to rethink your decisions.

How you socialize inclusive language within your team or organization will also look different, depending on how you collaborate. We recommend incorporating your inclusive language guidelines into your main brand or editorial style guide to ensure they become part of your regular workflow instead of an afterthought.

We’ve found success bringing this content into our client’s intranets in the form of a brand portal (using our product, Brandmate). This ensures we have a place to share and amplify this information across the organization that is easily accessible to all employees.

Want to learn more?

If you’re interested in reading more about this topic, here are some other articles that we enjoyed reading:

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