Guide to using inclusive language

Flinders University is committed to providing a work and study environment that recognises and values the cultural diversity of its community. The use of inclusive language is an important part of creating that environment. Used constructively, language can reflect social and cultural diversity in a positive and accurate way rather than perpetuating negative stereotypes about individuals and groups.

What is discriminatory language?
What is inclusive language?
Language and Indigenous Australians

Language and Australians of language backgrounds other than English
Language and sexuality
Language and gender
Language and disability
Language and age
What to do if you have experienced language discrimination

What is discriminatory language?

Many common English terms and expressions create and reinforce bias against individuals and groups of people. Often, this is done unconsciously. Even when used unconsciously, it could create an environment that is humiliating, offensive and alienating in its effects. Language can also have the effect of creating and reinforcing negative stereotypes about particular groups of people by either exaggerating or isolating particular features of that group.

State and federal legislation make it unlawful to discriminate against people on the basis of their sex, marital status, sexuality, pregnancy, race, national or ethnic origins, disability, age and religion. Discrimination means the unfair treatment of a person based on these attributes and includes the use of words and expressions to label or describe individuals or groups of people. Harassment, which is behaviour that offends, humiliates, intimidates or creates a hostile environment, is also a form of discrimination. Discriminatory language could therefore become the subject of a complaint under the University’s Equal Opportunity Policy or to the state or federal Equal Opportunity Commissions.

What is inclusive language?

Inclusive language positively reflects the social and cultural diversity of staff and students and is integral to the implementation of the University’s Equal Opportunity Policy.

Acknowledging and respecting social and cultural diversity at Flinders therefore requires using language that is inclusive of social and cultural diversity and avoiding language that discriminates, excludes or harasses individuals and groups of people.

People, regardless of their social and cultural backgrounds, are first and foremost individuals. Reference to an individual’s attributes is therefore only appropriate if it is relevant to the context.

Language and Indigenous Australians

An Indigenous Australian is someone of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, and is accepted as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander in the community in which he/she lives or has lived. The term aboriginal, written with a small ‘a’ is used to describe indigenous people around the world and fails to recognise the uniqueness of Indigenous Australians. The term Aboriginal, with a capital ‘A’, on the other hand denotes Indigenous Australians and is therefore a more appropriate word to use.

Historically, terms such as ‘full-blooded’, ‘half-caste’ and ‘part aboriginal’ were used for the purpose of discriminating treatment and are regarded by Indigenous Australians as inaccurate and insulting. A person’s physical feature does not determine their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestry.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have diverse and distinct cultures that are often based on the land area associated with each particular person. Expressions such as 'the Aborigines', 'the Aboriginal people' and 'the Torres Strait Islanders' suggest that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the same and fail to recognise the diversity amongst these groups of people. Examples of more appropriate collective terms include, 'Aboriginal people' or 'Torres Strait Island people' as they recognise the social and cultural diversity of Indigenous Australians and also stress their humanity.

Terms that imply that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island societies are not as advanced as Europeans are based on a model of history that is questionable, the idea of evolution from a ‘lower’ to ‘higher’ (western) form of social organisation. They fail to recognise the effectiveness and sophistication of Indigenous Australian resource management and social organisation.

The term ‘black’ can signify solidarity and political activism against racism or the devaluing and discriminatory treatment of people based on race. The word 'black' should therefore not be used without knowing if it is acceptable to the people concerned. Only Indigenous Australians or people who have spent time with their communities should use the term 'Blackfella'.

Appropriate

Inappropriate

Indigenous Australian people/s

Aboriginal people/s

Aboriginal person

Torres Strait Islander people/s

Torres Strait Islander person

aborigines

the Aboriginals

the Torres Strait people

black or blackfellas

part-aborigine, full blooded, half-caste, quarter caste, octoroon, mulatto, hybrid

Indigenous nations

Complex and diverse societies

Efficient resource managers

Indigenous Australian society

primitive, simple, native, prehistoric,

stone age


Language and Australians of language backgrounds other than English

The term ‘Australian’ refers to people who were either born in Australia or have acquired Australian citizenship. It should therefore be used to refer to any Australian citizen, irrespective of that person’s cultural background. If it is important to specify a person’s cultural background, then qualifying adjectives such as Arabic Australians, Greek Australians, or Vietnamese Australians could be used.

The term ‘Asian’ is often used inappropriately to group people from countries such as Japan, China, India, Vietnam and Malaysia, under one label or title thereby failing to recognise distinct ethnic and cultural differences.

Inappropriate generalisations can also be made about ethnicity and religion. Not everyone from a particular country or ethnic group has the same religion. For example, not all Arabic people are Muslim and not all people from India are Hindus.

Derogatory terms that refer to a person’s ethnic or cultural origins such as ‘lebo’, ‘wog’ or ‘chink’ are a form of racial harassment and are not acceptable within the University community.

Language and sexuality

The term ‘queer’ can mean weird, odd, or strange or it can be used as a collective term inclusive of all those who experience oppression on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity. Historically, the term was used to devalue, demean and insult and discriminate against people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, transgender. In recent years however, the term 'queer' has been used by some people of diverse sexualities, to positively describe their identity. Therefore the term 'queer' may or may not be regarded as derogatory, depending on who uses the term and in what context. If in doubt, do not use the term.

Terms sometimes used by people who identify as queer to refer to themselves include ‘dyke’, ‘tranny’, ‘faggot’ and ‘poofter’. As a general rule, people who do not claim the identity themselves should not use these terms.

The term 'homosexual' has historically been associated with deviance, criminal behaviour and mental illness and is therefore inappropriate to use.

Language that reinforces the assumption that all personal relationships are exclusively heterosexual denies the lived realities of same sex couples. Using the term ‘partner’ instead of wife/husband where the sexual identity or marital status of a person is unknown reflects the real world more accurately.

Appropriate

Inappropriate

lesbian, gay man, bisexual woman/man, transman, transwoman, transsexual person, transgender person

Homosexual, dyke, faggot, tranny, leso, poofter, homo, lemon

partner

husband, wife

Statements such as 'that’s so gay' are also demeaning to gay people and are best avoided.

The acronym GLBTTIQQ encompasses people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, intersex, questioning and queer.

Language and gender

Historically, language expression has been patriarchal, often rendering women as invisible, insignificant or inferior. This is no longer acceptable in contemporary Australian society. The table below provides examples of, and alternatives to, outdated and inappropriate terms. It is not acceptable to use a disclaimer saying all masculine nouns are to be taken as also referring to women.

Appropriate 

Inappropriate 

Humans, humankind, spokesperson, chairperson, quality of work/skill, attend the desk/phones

Man, mankind, spokesman, chairman, workmanship, man the desk/phones

Supervisors must give their approval or the supervisor must give her/his or his/her approval.

The supervisor must give his approval.

Office staff, doctor, cleaner, professor

The girls in the office, woman doctor, male nurse, cleaning lady, female professor

Author, actor, manager

Authoress, actress, manageress

The title ‘Mr’ does not make reference to the person’s marital status unlike the titles ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’. Using the title ‘Ms’ is therefore preferable unless otherwise indicated.

Using the term ‘partner’ or ‘spouse’ rather than ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ when referring to relationships is more inclusive of the variety of relationships that exist in the community for example, defacto and/or same sex couples.

Compliments made to women can also be seen as patronising or demeaning. For example, comments such as: 'you’re feminine for a supervisor' or 'you’re smart for a woman' or 'you think just like a man'. Praising male behaviour as if it is extraordinary but which is often commonplace for women can also be considered insulting to women. For example, 'he is amazing, he even does the housework'.

Calling women ‘girls’, ‘sweetie’ ‘honey’, ‘love’ or ‘chicks’ is also demeaning and patronising to many women and should be avoided.

The term ‘lady’ should only be used if ‘gentleman’ is used in the same context.

Language and disability

Describing people with disabilities in a way that emphasises their disability over their individuality has the effect of depersonalising and presenting all people who have a disability as a homogenous group. If it is necessary to draw attention to the person’s disability, then place the person first in a description. The focus needs to be on the person, not the disability.

People with disabilities do not see themselves as victims or as suffering. Nor do they wish to be seen as such.

Expressions such as 'confined to a wheelchair' can be misconstrued as a limitation when in reality, the use of a wheelchair is considered liberating for some people who use wheelchairs. Furthermore, people with disabilities are ‘handicapped’ in so far as the environment does not accommodate their disabilities.

Social and physical barriers are the handicap, not the disability itself. For example, stairs are a handicap to people who use wheelchairs.

Terms that define disability as a limitation such as handicapped, bound/confined, victim, sufferer, differently-abled or physically challenged, are therefore inappropriate.

A common but inaccurate expression used for toilets designed to accommodate people with particular disabilities is 'disabled toilets'. Toilets are not disabled. Nor does the focus need to be disability. A more accurate term is ‘universal access toilets’.


Appropriate

Inappropriate

People with disabilities/ staff or students with disabilities

The disabled/ handicapped/ physically challenged/ incapacitated

People who are blind/ people with visual impairment

The blind/ visually impaired

People who are deaf, people who are hard of hearing

The deaf, hearing impaired

Person with epilepsy

Epileptic

Person who uses a wheelchair or wheelchair user

Wheelchair bound/ confined to a wheelchair

Person with intellectual disabilities/ person with learning difficulties

Mentally handicapped/ retarded

Person living with AIDS

Victim of AIDS/ AIDS sufferer

A person with cerebral palsy

Spastic

People without a disability

Normal, able bodied

Universal access toilets

Disabled toilets

Where possible, find out how the individual refers to her/his disability.

Language and age

Where reference to a person’s age is necessary, then the language should reflect the humanity and individuality of people. Terms sometimes used to refer to older people such as ‘the elderly’, ‘the old’, ‘the aged’ imply that older people are a homogenous group thereby failing to recognise a person’s individuality. Labelling older people as ‘senile’ or ‘geriatric’ is demeaning, dehumanising and offensive.

The terms ‘kids’, ‘girls’, ‘boys’ commonly refer to young children. It is therefore inappropriate to use these terms when referring to young students or employees.

Appropriate

Inappropriate

Seniors, older adults, mature aged

The old, the aged, geriatric, senile

Young people, younger person

Kids, girls, boys

Generalisations based on age have the effect of stereotyping and demonising people. Not all older people are grumpy or boring just like not all young people are lazy or arrogant. Not everyone has a mid-life crisis either. Expressions such as ‘he behaves like an old woman’ are also demeaning and insulting to women in general and mature women in particular.

What to do if you have experienced language discrimination