Inclusive Language Guide

An guide devel­oped by Spike Island that out­lines how to use inclu­sive lan­guage to avoid bias­es, slang or expres­sions that exclude cer­tain groups.

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The way we write for and about people can help to promote equality, diversity and inclusion, reduce barriers, and provide the same opportunities for all. This guide outlines how to use inclusive language to avoid biases, slang or expressions that exclude certain groups based on age, race, ethnicity, disability, gender or sexual orientation.


Only include age if it is relevant, for example, with initiatives that are only available or relevant for a particular age group(s).

Don’t use age as a means to describe an individual or group where it is not relevant, such as ‘mature workforce’ or ‘young and vibrant team’.

We actively avoid ageist terms such as ‘elderly’, ‘OAPs’, ‘pensioners’ or ‘youngsters’, instead using terms that are objective (and specific):

  • Baby or toddler (0–3 years)
  • child (4–12 years)
  • teenager (13–19 years)
  • young people/young adults (16–24)
  • adults (19–64)
  • older people/older adults
  • over-65s, 75s and so on

Disabled People

We don’t define a person or group according to their disabilities or conditions. We use language that focuses on their abilities, rather than limitations.

We follow the Social Model of Disability which is central to the struggle for inclusion and equality for Disabled people. The model says that people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference. Our use of the term ‘Disabled people’ reflects this, as does our description of d/Deaf and Disabled people and organisations.

Following the Social Model of Disability, we do not say ‘person/people with disabilities’ as this implies disability is an individual matter – something a person “has”. It is the disabling barriers operating in society that disables us, not our impairments or differences.

We use the terms:

  • Disabled people/person
  • Wheelchair user
  • People/person with visual impairments, blind people, partially sighted people
  • People/person living with cancer
  • People/person with diabetes
  • People/person living with dementia
  • Seizures

We avoid saying:

  • The disabled
  • Handicapped people
  • Diabetic, suffers with diabetes
  • Wheelchair-bound
  • Handicapped
  • Suffering from cancer
  • Victim of dementia
  • Able-bodied

When talking about facilities, we say:

  • Accessible toilets / accessible car parking
We do not say:
  • Disabled toilets / disabled car parking

We also follow the cultural model of d/Deafness which rejects the medical definition of deafness as either a loss or impairment. Within the cultural model of deafness, Deaf people see themselves as a linguistic and cultural minority community rather than a disability group.

We use the terms:

  • d/Deaf or deafened people
  • Hard of hearing

We avoid saying:

  • People with hearing impairments
  • The deaf
  • Suffering from deafness
  • Afflicted by deafness

The simplest approach is to ask people how they want to be described. There is no right or wrong and the best way is to accept the person’s own preference.


Neurodivergence relates to the fact that no two brains are exactly alike – this variety in our biological make-up results in natural differences in communication skills, problem-solving and creative insights. Autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) are all included in the range of neurodivergence seen in around 10% of the population. Understanding and appreciating these normal differences emphasises the importance of not using medicalised or negative language in association with neurodivergence.

When talking about neurodivergence, we say:

  • Neurodivergent person
  • Autistic person
  • Person on the autistic spectrum
  • Person with dyslexia

We do not say:

  • An autistic
  • Has autism
  • Person with autism
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (Note: referring to the Autism Spectrum is fine, but ‘Disorder’ is offensive to some autistic people)
  • High-functioning, low-functioning (unless an autistic person is using it about themselves)
  • Dyslexic
  • Normal

Mental health

Everyone has mental health and the ways in which we experience it are unique to each of us. We use person-centered language to reflect this sensitivity and to avoid positive or negative labelling. We do not describe people as mentally ill or defined by a condition.

We do say:

  • Mental health conditions
  • Mental health problems
  • People with anxiety
  • A person with depression
  • A person with a mental health condition

We do not say:

  • Mental disorder
  • Mental illness
  • Suffers with anxiety
  • Struggles with depression

Race and ethnicity

Race and ethnicity can sometimes be regarded as the same thing, but they have different meanings. Although, it’s important to know, both are social constructs used to categorise and characterise at an individual and group level.

Whilst there can be overlap between the two terms, is useful to understand the definition of the two terms for context and clarity in which words to use.

The term ‘race’ is understood today primarily as identities sharing some outward physical characteristics and some commonalities of ancestry or historical experiences. Examples being: skin colour, hair texture

The term ‘ethnicity’ is a word for something you acquire based on where your family is from and the group which you share cultural, traditional, and familial bonds and experiences with. More frequently this is chosen by the individual and linked to cultural expression. Examples being: shared language, cultural customs, religious expression.

It’s important to note that people may have racial similarity but ethnic dissimilarity and that we are all afforded the right to self-identify.

We refer to ethnicity and not race because we understand the importance in allowing people to self-identify with the culture that feels most align to them. It also allows us to be consistent throughout our communications and reporting.

We are all individuals first: we only need to refer to people’s ethnicity if it’s relevant to the information we are communicating.

An example of this is where an artist’s work specifically refers to being inspired or influenced by their ethnic background.

And if we are unsure or don’t know, we ask: ‘Would you be willing to describe your ethnicity to me?’

We recognise there might be a larger context or emotional toll to being asked these questions, therefore we ask if people are willing to share and we are understanding if the answer is ‘no’.

We recommend using the following:

Specific ethnicity:

  • White: British / European
  • Romani traveller
  • Irish traveller
  • Dual or Multiple ethnicity (we use dual over mixed):
  • South East Asian or South East Asian British
  • South Asian or South Asian British
  • Black or Black British
  • Arab
  • Latin American

Where possible, give space for participants to self-describe as well as the above list

Global Majority rather than minority ethnic. Global Majority refers to people who identify as Black, Asian, Mixed and/or have been racialised as ‘ethnic minorities’; these groups represent over 80% of the world’s population.

Other terms:

People of colour – Some people prefer this term, and we respect this. However, where possible we aim to use the terms listed above and to be more specific about ethnicity, if it’s relevant to the information we are communicating.

BAME is often used as an acronym for Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic, used to refer to all ethnic groups except White British Group. The use of ‘Black, Asian and minority ethnic’ or ‘BAME’ can often offer an assumption that all non-White people exist as a homogenous group without appreciation of the uniqueness of individual ethnicities. Based on these factors, we advise against its use – instead, be as specific as possible.

For a great resource on this, check out Inc Arts #BAMEOver

We actively avoid and challenge racial and ethnic slurs and any language that infers or endorses stereotypes based upon racial or ethnic associations.

Sex and gender identity

The language around sex and gender identity is evolving constantly and it is important to understand the difference between them.

‘Sex’ is biological (male, female or intersex) and relates to genes, internal/external reproductive organs and hormones inherited at birth.

‘Gender’ can be fixed or fluid and refers to our internal sense of who we are and how we see and describe ourselves.

Binary gender terms (man/woman, girl/boy) have traditional associations with sex, but we now recognise how some people identify with a gender opposite to that assigned to them as a child (trans) and others identify neither as men nor women (non-binary or genderfluid).

If we do not know a person’s prounouns, we use gender-neutral terms, rather than those that make sex distinction, i.e. you or they/their/them, not he/she or him/her. Don’t forget, you can also simply use a person’s name when referring to them.

Where it is not clear what, if any, gendered pronouns or nouns are appropriate for an individual, we ask and respect their wishes; ‘what are your pronouns?’.

The following should prove helpful as a guide:

  • People/person or individual(s), rather than man/men or woman/women
  • Everyone/colleagues, rather than ladies and gentlemen/guys
  • Parent, carer or guardian, rather than mother or father
  • Partner, rather than husband or wife
  • Sibling, rather than brother or sister
  • Artificial or synthetic, rather than man-made
  • Humankind, not mankind
  • Workforce, not manpower
  • We provide cover or staff, rather than to ‘man’

Most occupations/roles need not be gender-defined:

  • Chair, not chairman
  • Scientist or lecturer, rather than female scientist or male lecturer
  • Police officer, not policeman/police woman
  • Spokesperson, not spokesman

Sexual orientation

When talking about sexuality, we use the term ‘sexual orientation’, not ‘sexual preference’.

We mention sexuality where and when it is relevant to the context. For example, recruitment initiatives designed to increase applications from individuals belonging to sexual or gender minorities, for example lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or any of the other LGBTQIA+ orientations a person may identify with.

If in doubt, ask someone their preferred term and respect their wishes.

When talking about sexuality, we say:

  • Lesbian people, gay people, bisexual people
  • Heterosexual people, straight people
  • Sexual orientation
  • Partner, spouse
  • Only use ‘LGBTQIA+’ when referring to both sexual orientation and gender identity-based communities
  • Straight CIS gendered, ally

Note: ‘Queer’ can be used as an adjective to describe individuals who don’t identify as straight, but historically it has also had negative connotations so, if used, should be used with care.

We do not say:

  • Lesbians, gays, bisexual
  • Sexual preference
  • Heterosexuals
  • Don’t use ‘LGBTQIA+’ if you are only talking about gender or gender identity
  • Don’t use ‘straight’ as the opposite of LGBTQIA+’ (transgender people can be any sexual orientation, including ‘straight’)

We also do not assume that people use the terms Girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband


While religions have their origins in certain parts of the world, it would be incorrect to assume people whose ethnicity originates from those countries observe the same religion or any religion. Similarly, a person’s religious belief cannot be assumed by their name.

The extent to which followers of different religions observe or express their faith is personal to them and we do not condone challenging individuals on their faith or lack of.

We only refer to people’s religion if it’s relevant to the information we are communicating. In those cases we use the following:

  • First name, forename or given name, not Christian name
  • Names of religions and religious groups take an upper case
  • Groups of individuals from the same religion should be referred to as a community, such as members of the Muslim community or Jewish people

Socioeconomic background

People who live or grew up in an area with less resources can often be stigmatised simply because of this. The words used to describe an area or community can influence how the people that live there are viewed and how these people then view themselves. Language is one of the ways that we can maintain people’s dignity and prevent blame for the situation being apportioned to residents, either by others or themselves.

When describing socioeconomic situations or places, we say:

  • Under-resourced
  • Disadvantaged
  • Low-opportunity
  • Communities with high-poverty rates
  • Communities with access to fewer opportunities
  • People experiencing homelessness
  • Clients
  • People with low incomes
  • People facing health / educational / etc. challenges due to poverty

We do not say:

  • Hard-to-reach
  • (The) homeless
  • Struggling
  • Poor

Useful References

Guardian and Observer Language Style Guide
Inclusion London: The Social Model of Disability
The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities
How to Talk About Autism

Would you like to contribute to this guidance?

Language is constantly evolving, and we want to change with it. We are always open to discussing the language we use, reviewing and adjusting it when it makes sense to do so. We aim to bring this evolving picture together in our Inclusive Language Guide.

Please check Spike Island's website for the latest version of this resource, and send an email if you would like to contribute.