The Art of Inclusive Language
Inclusive language can be a virtual minefield for writers, where any misstep can result in offending the reader. Even if the writer lives with chronic illness or disability, the possibility of offending others is ever-present.
Did I say that right… “lives with chronic illness or disability?” I ask because I’ve been taken to task about my terminology. The brief bio that appears after each post in this space includes the phrase, “as a multiple sclerosis patient…” Feedback indicates that this may not be the correct term and is, in fact, insulting and just plain wrong.
As a person with MS, I don’t find it insulting, but if I’ve offended anyone with my terminology, I do apologize. It’s an important issue, one that deserves discussion, but also one that involves many shades of gray. Not all people with illness or disability are like-minded, and we are not all offended by the same things.
I’ve also been told that MS shouldn’t be mentioned in my bio at all, but I beg to differ. Here’s the thing. If you asked me to describe myself in general for a short bio, mention of MS would not even make the cut. But context is important, too. Author bios are short, and we strive to hone in on the reasons we are writing on a certain topic or in a particular venue. If I’m writing about MS, chronic illness, disability, or health care policy, mentioning how I come to my point of view is relevant and an important piece of information. The fact that I have MS tells the reader that I speak from personal experience.
As for a full bio, there are no limits. I am a human being, wife, mother, step-mother, sister, daughter, friend, aunt, freelance writer, popcorn addict, pet lover, reader, tail-end baby boomer, fan of Monk... well, you get the picture. Like most people, I can be defined in many ways. Sometimes, I am an MS patient.
My family tree also includes a diabetic, but in researching inclusive language, I find that is not an acceptable term either. She is a person with diabetes. She, too, is a great many things beyond that label — but we do use the term “diabetic” in the context of discussions regarding health. No offense intended or taken.
Is it “disabled” or “person with disability?” Inclusive language experts say it’s the latter. Ah, but take a look around the web at the blogs of persons with disabilities, and you’ll come across badges and banners that read, “Disabled and Proud,” as well as many variations on such terminology, depending upon the context.
In researching acceptable terms, I came across the advice to refer to “people without disabilities” rather than “able-bodied” people. Well, I’m certainly guilty of incorrectness on that one. “People without disabilities” strikes me as awkward. “Partially sighted” rather than “partially blind” does accentuate the positive, and “Handicapped Parking” is making the transition to “Disabled Parking.” Lots of food for thought here.
In a previous post, “Beyond the Disabled Label,” I wrote about the labels placed on us by society and the labels we choose for ourselves. The labels are important as a qualifier for a disabled parking placard or social security disability benefits, or as outlined in the Americans with Disability Act. But the labels we give ourselves are as unique as we are, and change according to context.
If inclusive language, or political correctness, is meant to avoid insult, stereotypes, discrimination, or exclusion, that’s a positive thing and I’m on board. My purpose in writing about MS and about health care policy in the first place is to support people with health concerns. On the other hand, the suggested terminology doesn’t always roll easily off the tongue or onto the keyboard. Missteps and miscalculations will occur and each reader will interpret based on their unique point of view. That’s something beyond the writer’s control.
Language is dynamic, a living entity. It evolves from year to year and decade to decade. What was once acceptable is no longer so, but it may change yet again. New terms come into vogue that challenge our previous notions. It takes a long time for new ideas to take hold and become habit.
In the interest of clarity for this article, my bio remains unchanged this week. I suppose I should use the correct inclusive language in the future, but would love to hear your opinions on this one — please make use of the comment section below to express your ideas about inclusive language for matters of health.
Writer Ann Pietrangelo embraces the concept of personal responsibility for health and wellness. As a multiple sclerosis patient, she combines a healthy lifestyle and education with modern medicine, and seeks to provide information and support to others. She is a regular contributor to Care2.com’s Reform Health Policy blog in Causes.