In evaluation capacity building work, we talk about the importance of developing shared language around data and evaluation. While having an understanding of certain terms like “outcomes” is helpful, the importance of language goes beyond these fundamentals. Language is how we tell the story about our programs and communities. The language we use expresses our values and has the opportunity to unify or divide.
This series will share my experiences adopting more inclusive and non-violent language into my work. Part 1 (this one) discusses inclusive and strengths-based language while Part 2 addresses non-violent language. Both are posts that have lived in draft form for over a year…oops!
My introduction to inclusive language comes from the health sector. As someone living with a chronic illness, I know what it is like to have a label placed on me. You will never hear me refer to myself as “diabetic.” Instead I use the language, “I have Type 1 Diabetes.” I didn’t know this was inclusive or person-first language when I was younger, I just knew that I did not like being defined by a health condition. I am more than one singular part of my life.
This is a simple, low-risk, example. While I might feel upset or irritated by someone calling me “diabetic,” it will likely not cause me lasting harm. That is not always the case. The words we choose can be othering and harmful, even when not intended in that way.
Furthermore, what you might consider inclusive could be divisive for others and vice versa. So let’s all try to do better and use language more intentionally.
Here are a few overarching suggestions:
- Use person first language (example: person with diabetes versus diabetic)
- Ask people and groups how they would like to be described (our clients and communities are the experts!)
- Use gender-neutral language (example: people instead of guys to refer to a group)
- Adopt strengths-based language (example: survivor versus victim)
- Be mindful of mental health diagnostic criteria (example: avoid saying something gave you PTSD when mean you feel upset)
Below are a few examples of inclusive and strengths-based language that I have adopted in my own work. This list is by no means exhaustive. It also does not address inclusive language around race, ethnicity, or gender. I am still learning and growing in those areas.
|Not/Less Inclusive||More Inclusive|
|Elderly/Old||Older adults, older people|
|Guys||People, you all, y’all|
|Illegal alien, illegal immigrant||Undocumented, person seeking citizenship|
|Maiden name||Family name|
|Middle aged||Person between the ages of|
|Minority||Name the specific group|
|Employment or Role|
|Congressman||Member of Congress, legislator|
|Health and Mental Health|
|Blind||Person who is blind|
|Committed suicide||Died by suicide|
|Developmental disability||Use the name of the specific condition|
|Disabled or differently abled||Person with a disability|
|Diabetic (or other health condition)||Person with diabetes (or other health condition)|
|Frequent flyer||Utilizer of services, someone using services|
|Handicap||Use the name of the specific condition|
|Insane or crazy||Mental illness|
|Special needs||Use the name of the specific condition|
|Suffering from||Experiencing, living with|
|Disadvantaged or under-served||Under-resourced|
|Homeless||Person experiencing homelessness, unhoused|
|Dummy variable||Placeholder, sample|
But…as with much of evaluation, IT DEPENDS!
There is likely never going to be 100% agreement between all members of a group regarding preferred language. We are all unique and so is how we describe ourselves. You may have heard the saying, “nothing about us without us.” It is important to understand what language resonates with the groups you are working with and follow their expertise and suggestions.
For example, many individuals in the disability community prefer using the term disabled over person with a disability. Rather, the term disability is used as an advocacy and social justice tool to highlight social and structural inequities. “In this context proclaiming ‘I am disabled’ then becomes a political term as it refers to the way that someone with a non-normative body or mind is disabled or disadvantaged by societal barriers such as inaccessible buildings, transport and negative perceptions, stereotypes of disability and so on.”
As disability and queer rights activist, public speaker, writer, and spoken-word producer, Jax Jacki Brown, says, “The personal is political, so when I call myself a disabled woman I am aligning myself with the respective social justice movements. It is a conscious deliberate and pride filled choice, one that I do not wish to have corrected or erased by others.”
Language also changes and evolves over time and contexts. Something considered acceptable and inclusive today might not be later. The language you are familiar with might not be the language used across different fields, cultures, and geographies. We have to be nimble and humble in our work and learning.
I’m still learning and growing too. One area that I continue to feel unsettled by is language around income and poverty. Terms like disadvantaged, marginalized, and underprivileged all feel judgmental and place blame on individuals rather than highlighting the result of centuries of racism and intentional underfunding. I cringe when I hear language like at-risk or vulnerable youth to describe groups or individuals. Yet, substitutes like opportunity youth do not feel respectful or equitable either. This is an area where I need to connect more closely with my clients and listen to their expertise.
What examples of inclusive language are you using in your data and evaluation work?
What updates or suggestions do you have to the list above?
- A progressive’s style guide
- Disability language style guide
- GLAAD media reference guide
- Using inclusive language Guidelines and examples
- When it comes to older adults, language matters
- 70 inclusive language principles that will make you a more successful recruiter
Interested in learning more about adopting less violent language in your work? Read Part 2 of this post.