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Language - Guide to Non-Discriminatory Language

Scope and Purpose of this Guide

This guidance supports UCL's commitment to equal opportunities and is for use by everyone who produces teaching and learning materials or any written material such as letters, memos, minutes and reports, in the course of their work. Language reflects the values of our society and its use can perpetuate prejudice and discrimination or reflect the celebration of diversity. It is important therefore that we use language that is inclusive and that we are sensitive to the risk of patronising, offending or excluding colleagues or students through our use of language. In the setting of examinations, it is particularly important to avoid any ethnic, sex, religious or inappropriate cultural bias in questions. This guide has been endorsed by the Academic Committee and reflects guidance produced by the Higher Education Funding Council and its principles must be reflected in UCL communications, both internal and external.

Cultural Diversity

UCL is a multi-cultural environment, and its staff and students have a wide variety of traditions, cultures and values. It is important therefore that the words we use respect the identity of the person or people with whom we are communicating or to whom we are referring. Terms such as 'non-white' or 'non-European' for example are problematic in that they define race from a white or European perspective.

The two most common pitfalls in producing culturally inclusive teaching and learning materials are omission and stereotyping. By the inclusion of particular material, an author defines what is important and this can have an influence on the reader's view of the subject. In case studies, training and teaching materials, it is important wherever possible to reflect the diversity of contemporary society by including people of different ethnic groups and cultures in a range of different roles, characteristics and lifestyles. A broader perspective on a topic can often improve the material for all users and those from an ethnic minority are able to better identify with it, as their own heritage and culture are shown to be valued.

Racial stereotyping, the attribution of particular characteristics to all members of a particular ethnic group, carries the danger that those from minority ethnic groups are viewed by those in the majority, as different from the 'norm' and therefore deviant in some way. Avoid making assumptions or stereotyping from people's ethnic origin, religious or linguistic background.

The term 'ethnicity' is used to refer to the sense of identity which derives from shared cultural characteristics such as language, religion, history or geographical location. Everyone belongs to an ethnic group, whether they are in the majority or minority. The term 'ethnic' to describe someone's racial origin is therefore meaningless. BME stands for black and minority ethnic. 'Minority ethnic' refers to those people/ groups other than the white British majority.

The term 'black people' refers to Black British, African-Caribbean, African, or African-American people. Opinion is divided amongst British Asians about whether they consider themselves as 'black' and for this group the term should be considered a matter of self-definition. 'Asian' and 'South Asian' in the U.K. is used to refer to people from India , Pakistan and Bangladesh and their British Asian descendants. 'South East Asian' includes people and their descendants from the Far East . The term 'black' also does not adequately cover other groups from the Middle East, North Africa or people from mixed origins. Generally, it is best to avoid over-generalisation and, where it is appropriate, to refer to an individual's country of origin if you know it. It is important to use the term 'immigrant' appropriately - in the UK it is often used inaccurately of British Nationals born in this country .


The social model of disability, to which UCL subscribes, locates the disability within the physical barriers and negative attitudes in society rather than a person's impairment.

It is important to avoid characterising disabled people as a homogeneous, needy or victimised group. Avoid expressions that turn adjectives into nouns e.g. 'the disabled' which depersonalise, or which define people in terms of their disability, such as 'epileptics'.. It is helpful to use positive images of disabled people in case studies etc. in order to illustrate that disability is incidental to the activity being undertaken. Bear in mind the needs of disabled people in the design of written material. In producing typed text consider the size and shape of the typeface to ensure that the maximum number of readers can see it clearly without assistance. For example disability organisations suggest that a font size no smaller than point 12 should be used routinely, with a type face that is round and simple (such as the 'Arial' font used in this guide) This will help those with visual loss or dyslexia to read the text, as smaller and more elaborate fonts are more difficult to read. High contrast text/images with uncluttered backgrounds are best. Type should not be superimposed on images. Glossy paper and coloured print also make reading more difficult for everyone. Written materials, where requested should be available in alternative formats e.g. on disk for those unable to read print.

All web based material should be accessible to the technologies used by some disabled people and conform to the good practice guidelines on accessibility to disabled people. See Free analysis of web pages is available at . See also which has resource guides on visual, hearing, mobility and learning impairments and language and speech.

These are just a few examples; if you would like advice on the production of material which will be accessible to people with sensory disabilities (Braille, tape recording, the use of sign language interpreters etc.), the Disability Co-ordinator will be happy to help.


The English language has traditionally tended to assume the world to be male unless specified otherwise and therefore it is important to be sensitive to ways in which the use of sex neutral words can actively promote equality. Using 'he' to refer to an unspecified person is now generally considered unacceptable and it is preferable to use '(s)he', 'she/he' or 'he or she' and vice versa. A disclaimer that 'he should be taken to include she' looks like the token gesture that it is. Avoid using the terms 'ladies' or 'girls' for women, as this is patronising.

Sex has traditionally been associated with the words for particular roles for example 'foreman', 'housewife' and 'chairman'. The test is always to ask yourself whether you would describe someone of the other sex in the same way. Women are also often referred to in terms of the title conferred by their marital status - Miss or Mrs. As you will often not know a woman's marital status, it is safer to use the title Ms, which may not always be their preferred title, but will not be inaccurate.

Roughly half of the people in paid work in Britain are now women and a minority of households now take the form of a traditional nuclear family. It is important to reflect this in case studies and teaching materials and you should consider showing women in jobs, hobbies and roles traditionally ascribed to men and vice versa. Use 'partner' instead of spouse routinely, to avoid assuming that everyone is a heterosexual couple or part of a 'traditional' family.


The dominant societal bias towards heterosexual lifestyles fosters assumptions that attraction to people of the opposite sex is the 'norm' and a different orientation towards people of the same sex is therefore unacceptable.

As equal members of society lesbians and gay men should be described in terms that do not demean them, sensationalise their lives or imply deviance. The term 'homosexual' is generally not now used, as it has medical and derogatory connotations and is often considered only to refer to men. Avoid in case studies and teaching materials negative stereotyping that perpetuates the myths that lesbians, bisexuals and gay men are less likely to be in stable relationships or are less suited to be parents.

The following illustrates some examples of terms that are best avoided in order to ensure that your language does not offend. It is obviously not exhaustive.

Here are some examples of alternative phraseology that you might find useful.


Do use

affliction, handicap

impairment, condition, disorder, difficulty


chair, chairperson, convenor, Presiding Officer (In the context of UCL committees, the term Chair¹ should be used exclusively)

christian name

first name, given name, forename, personal name

cleaning lady







person with dyslexia

(the) ethnics

ethnic minority people, BME people


mixed race

homosexual, queer

lesbian, gay man



man or mankind

humanity, human kind, human race


Human Resources, HR, employees, workforce, labour force

mental age of

severe or profound learning difficulties

mental handicap

learning difficulty, learning disability

mad, mentally ill

mental health conditions/issues

old man/woman/person, pensioner,oap, geriatric, senior citizen older person, elderly person


Chinese, Japanese, Far East Asian

sex change

gender reassignment


person with cerebral palsy

the disabled

disabled people


trans(gender) people

victim of, crippled by

person who has, person with

wheelchair bound

wheelchair user