Teaching & Learning


Using inclusive language in education

This toolkit highlights the significance of using inclusive language in order to promote inclusivity and break away from perpetuating stereotypes.

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21 July 2023

As our student community grows more diverse, it is vital to embrace inclusive language to create a welcoming and inclusive environment where everyone feels valued and respected.

By incorporating inclusive language into our education practices and working/studying relationships, we demonstrate our commitment to equity and foster a supportive atmosphere for students and staff of all backgrounds and identities to thrive.

While inclusive language has its limitations and is subjective, it plays a crucial role so here we provide helpful suggestions to guide you on the path towards positive language use. 

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Only got a minute? Jump straight to our key takeaways.

Why does Inclusive Language matter? 

There are many negative stereotypes that exist about marginalised* groups. Using words and phrases without thoughtful consideration can lead to exclusion, hurt feelings, and unfair treatment. Without carefully reflecting on our language choices, we run the risk of reinforcing negative stereotypes, perpetuating power imbalances and societal injustices.

This can have negative consequences, such as dissatisfied students, higher dropout rates, complaints, and negative impacts on mental health and impact on teaching teams and collaboration needed for inclusive settings to thrive.  

Language is powerful. It can help people feel valued and included or dismissed and excluded. It can destigmatise, enable respectful relationships, and build trust.  

*"marginalised" refers to disadvantaged or underrepresented communities in society. For instance, racial and ethnic minorities, disabled people, women, LGBTQ+ people, socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals, etc. 

Inclusive etiquette  

Inclusive etiquette is essential for engaging with diverse marginalised groups, as it promotes respectful interactions and avoids causing offense or prying.   

Engaging in open discussions about inclusion is vital for nurturing a sense of belonging and creating positive educational experiences. However, it is equally important to have a clear understanding of acceptable language usage and how to respectfully interact with diverse individuals. By equipping our community with the necessary tools, we empower people to learn about engaging confidently with inclusive language. 

Inclusive Language Strategies 

Ask how someone identifies

Don’t make assumptions. You could build this into ‘warm up’/ ‘icebreaker’ or introductory activities but be mindful of how you ask and that not everyone will be comfortable sharing information about themselves in a group activity.  

Tip: Try something like an "Identity Art Gallery" activity. Ask participants to create visual representations of their identities by drawing symbols, writing words, and/or using colours that represent different aspects of who they are. They have the option to share their artwork with others, but it is not mandatory. The activity promotes self-expression and celebrates the diversity of identities without intruding on personal information. 
Focus on an equitable approach

People’s identities are multifaceted, one aspect of their identity does not define them. Do not over-focus on someone’s race, ability, sexuality, etc. but consider how you can include them.

Use language that someone identifies with  

Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic or ‘BAME’ is a much-contested term that many do not identify with because it homogenises the non-white experience. Some use ‘Person of Colour’, others ‘racially marginalised/minoritised’ (from a national context) or ‘global majority’ (from a global perspective). 

Tip: Language preferences are subjective so during one-to-one interactions, use an individual’s preferences. For group interactions, use language that is current. 

Avoid language that is patronising, emotive or aligns with deficit models

For example, ‘vulnerable’, ‘dependent’, ‘sufferer’, ‘problem’, ‘issue’ are terms that disempower people. If you are talking about a disability, ‘condition’ is more positive than ‘problem’ or ‘issue’. 

A person is not ‘brave’ or ‘inspirational’ because of their disability. Someone with dark skin is not ‘exotic-looking’. 

Do not use collective nouns

‘The Chinese’, ‘the disabled’, or ‘the blind’ as assumes homogeneity and negates the uniqueness of individual identities.  

Tip: Carefully consider the group(s) you are discussing and use terms that accurately describe them. Avoid using general terms unnecessarily, and keep in mind that the group(s) are not homogeneous and may have diverse characteristics, identities and subgroups with intersecting identities. 

Negative connotations

Is it appropriate to say ‘see you later’ to a blind person or ‘nice to hear from you’ to a deaf person? Yes, fine as these are inoffensive expressions, but avoid phrases with negative connotations e.g. ‘the blind leading the blind’ or ‘falling on deaf ears’. 

Inquiring about disabilities and neurodivergence

People are often asked to ‘declare’ or ‘disclose’ their disability/neurodivergence. Consider the definitions of those words…  

Some are OK and comfortable with these terms but be mindful of how this can perpetuate stigmatisation.  

Tip: Alternative ways to ask are ‘share information about…’ or ‘tell us if you identify as…’ or simply ‘let me know if I can make any adjustments so we can interact effectively’.  

Consider your audience

For instance, in UK audience, ‘disabled people’ is often preferred over ‘people with disabilities’ because it recognises that people are ‘disabled’ by society’s response to them or their long-term condition. Other parts of the world may use ‘people with disabilities’. This is called people's first language and emphasises the person over their disability.   

Tip: Be mindful that labels like ‘disabled’ lead to a focus on additional needs/support and so often play to deficit models. Individuals only need adjustments because education (and society generally) is inaccessible and inequitable by design – in other words, we use adjustments to retrofit. Find out about the social and medical models of disability

Cultural considerations

The words and phrases mentioned in this resource relate to the use of English in the UK. Different words will be viewed as acceptable and unacceptable in other languages and cultures. For instance, in English-speaking cultures, the term "black sheep" is often used metaphorically to refer to someone who is different or stands out from the rest of the group and is generally seen as a somewhat negative expression. However, in other cultures, the colour black symbolises good health and prosperity or mystery and feminine energy or evil, rebellion, and death.  

Tip: Use this as an opportunity to engage with diverse groups about differences in inclusive language. For instance, explain what “black sheep” means and ask about different cultural interpretations and equivalent phrases in other cultures.

Next steps…

1. Use this toolkit

Implement the strategies provided in your daily communication and interactions 

2. Continuous Learning

Language constantly changes, keep educating yourself and remain receptive to new knowledge. Take responsibility for your mistakes, apologise if you use incorrect terminology that offends someone, and learn from the experience. 

3. Seek Feedback

Invite input on your choice of inclusive language from students. You may want to engage with students via Continuous Module Dialogue and /or Student Curriculum Partners

Key takeaways

  • Prioritise equity: Strive to create fairness and equal opportunities for marginalised students, taking into account the multifaceted nature of their identities without overly emphasising any single aspect. 
  • Avoid patronising, emotive, or deficit-based language: Steer clear of language that could demean or reinforce negative stereotypes. 
  • Consider your audience: Tailor your language to the diverse backgrounds and identities of your students. 
  • Account for cultural meaning: Be mindful of cultural nuances to avoid unintended offense or miscommunication. 
  • Continuously educate yourself: Stay informed and open-minded as language evolves, continually educate yourself, seek feedback and embrace new knowledge. The ‘Inclusive language Guide’ (University of Edinburgh) and ‘A guide to creating inclusive content and language’ (National Institute for Health Research) are good starting points. 

Further help

Inclusive Teaching Toolkit 

References and further reading

Why Inclusive Language Matters’ by E. Andoh (2022), Psychology Student Network, American Psychological Association. 

Words Matter: How Language Influences Inclusion: Unpacking how language shapes and reinforces social stereotypes’ by Odessa S. Hamilton. 

Let’s be real: Inclusive Language Matters’ by Neha Jain. 

Casual Ableist Language’ by Annie Elainey. 

Neil Murray (2016) Dealing with diversity in higher education: awareness-raising and a linguistic perspective on teachers’ intercultural competence, International Journal for Academic Development, 21:3, 166-177, DOI: 10.1080/1360144X.2015.1094660 

A to Z of disability, Business Disability Forum.

SMART Goal Framework for Inclusive Language

SMART objectives should be tailored to individual needs and circumstances. These examples can serve as a starting point, and you can further refine them to align with your specific goals and timeframes. 

 Example OneExample Two
SpecificEnhance awareness and understanding of inclusive language in a specific context and increase sensitivity to cultural considerations and diverse linguistic expressions.Foster inclusive language in written materials, such as course materials or presentations. 
MeasurableAttend at least two workshops or training sessions on inclusive language within the next three months. Engage in conversations with individuals from different cultural backgrounds to learn about their language preferences and interpretations. Review and revise existing written materials to ensure they align with inclusive language principles. Seek feedback from colleagues or students on the inclusivity of written materials and incorporate suggestions for improvement. 
Achievable Allocate dedicated time each week to study and research inclusive language practices. Read and study literature or resources that explore the cultural nuances and variations of inclusive language. Allocate dedicated time to update and refine written materials, incorporating inclusive language and addressing feedback received. 
RelevantApply the acquired knowledge of inclusive language and cultural considerations in professional communications and interactions. Incorporate cultural considerations into everyday interactions and adjust language usage accordingly.Create an inclusive learning environment by providing written materials that are accessible, free from exclusionary language, and reflect diverse perspectives. 
Time-boundWithin six months, demonstrate improved usage of inclusive language and a deeper understanding and respect for diverse cultural interpretations of language Within three months, update and finalise all written materials to reflect inclusive language practices and ensure inclusivity in course materials and presentations. 
Example Goal Statements

By the end of the current semester, I will strive to...  

Example 1

improve the use of inclusive language in my daily communication and interactions. I will implement the strategies outlined in the inclusive language toolkit, track my progress by recording instances where inclusive language is successfully utilized, and seek feedback from students.  

Example 2

attend at least two workshops or training sessions on inclusive language, engage in conversations with individuals from different cultural backgrounds, and allocate dedicated time to study inclusive language practices and cultural nuances. Additionally, I will review and revise existing written materials, seeking feedback from colleagues or students to ensure inclusivity. 

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This guide has been produced by Manjula Patrick, Associate Professor, Arena Lead on Inclusive Education Practice. 

Reviewers and contributors:

  • Elise Crayton, Disability Equity Lead, Faculty of Brain Sciences
  • Helen Knowler, Associate Professor, Lead on ELEP Project
  • Paulette Williams, Head of Student Success Office. 

You are welcome to use this guide if you are from another educational facility, but you must credit the UCL Arena Centre. 

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