Do's and Don'ts

The use of people-first language is a movement to recognize the fundamental humanity of people, regardless of any disability they may have, and to help challenge the stereotype that people are limited by or limited to their disability. Thus, instead of saying “disabled person,” we say “person with disabilities,” putting the “person” first so the assumption isn’t that their disability is the most important or only thing we need to know about them. Other examples of people-first language: instead of saying someone is “learning disabled,” say they “have a learning disability,” or instead of saying someone is “handicapped” or “crippled,” say they “have a physical disability.” Having a disability is one characteristic of a person; their disability is not who they are. See also: “People First Language” (Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities, 2016).

There are many ways that we unintentionally demean people with disabilities through the casual ways we use language associated with disabilities to create a negative connotation about things unrelated to disability. One of the most common ways this occurs is through the offhand use of words like “psycho,” “nuts,” “maniac,” “insane,” or “crazy,” which imply through their use as negative modifiers that there is something wrong or abnormal about having a mental health condition. Similarly, casually using terms associated with specific diagnoses (e.g., “OCD,” “schizophrenic,” or “bipolar”) as ways to characterize someone’s behavior as problematic is demeaning to people who have been diagnosed with mental health conditions. In much the same way, the use of words such as “retarded,” “stupid,” or “dumb” to describe individuals is demeaning to people with cognitive or learning disabilities, and using terms like “lame,” “blind,” or “deaf” as generalized negative descriptors for people, places or things is demeaning to people with physical disabilities. Additionally, using terms like “crippling” or “a handicap” to refer to things considered problematic is also demeaning to people with physical disabilities. See also: “Disabling Ableist Language” (Andy Hollandbeck, 2016)

Traditional rules for writing once taught that “he / him / his” should be used as the default pronouns to refer to everyone. We have since shifted to using “he / she” as a combined subject pronoun as a way to be inclusive of women. However, as we continue to recognize the gender diversity that exists in our society and as we acknowledge that many people do not identify within the gender binary (i.e., they identify as genderfluid, genderqueer, gender non-binary, etc. rather than as men or women), we should consider changing our default pronoun use to better reflect that understanding and to signal to our readers that we are creating space for everyone, including readers who identify along the transgender spectrum. The use of “they / them / theirs” has gained acceptance both as a way to acknowledge and respect the gender-neutral pronouns an individual might use and to use pronouns to refer to people in general in a way that makes no assumption about or places any limits on their gender identity. Thus, instead of writing: “Applicants for the position should submit his / her resume and cover letter,” we can write, “Applicants for the position should submit their resume and cover letter.” See also: “Everyone Uses Singular ‘They,’ Whether They Realize It Or Not” (Geoff Nunberg, 2016)

Understand issues of diversity and be able to express empathy about concerns related to inclusion and climate. Campus staff and administrators are increasingly called on to make statements in response to specific bias incidents or broader climate concerns. It is crucial for the individuals drafting and issuing statements to work on developing their cultural competency on an ongoing basis and to consult with diversity experts before commenting on specific incidents or issues. It is quite common for university personnel to issue statements that unintentionally make marginalized communities on campus feel less understood and less supported. Before issuing any statement, make sure you fully understand the issue, what members of the campus community have experienced, how those experiences have impacted them emotionally and how those experiences have shaped their perception of the campus, its climate, and how welcome or included they feel there. Make sure to have a diverse panel of advisors vet any statement before issuing it. Having people with multiple perspectives review any statement will help decrease the possibility that something potentially problematic is included. See also: “Brené Brown on Empathy” (RSA, 2013)

Tone policing is a phrase used to describe the decision by people in power to provide guidance or suggestions or criticism related to the tone of conversations about cultural climate, harassment, discrimination, oppression, or violence. Tone policing occurs when people in positions of power rebuke people who are attempting to speak out about their experiences for the manner in which they’re speaking out (often by implying that they are too “angry” or “confrontational” or that they “aren’t helping” by not being more “civil”). On college campuses, tone policing often occurs in advance of student-led protests when administrators encourage students to protest “respectfully.” The effect of tone policing is that people often feel even more marginalized as tone policing is interpreted as serving to ensure that people in power aren’t made to feel too uncomfortable when others speak out about their oppression or as an act whereby people in power exert their power to attempt to control the tone of conversations and thereby silence others. See also: Feminism 101: What is Tone-Policing? (Jacqueline Pei, 2016)