Inclusive Language: Words Hurt Us All

Have you ever thought about the words and phrases we use in everyday language? It’s not about political correctness, it’s about showing respect to everyone. Words are powerful and can often be exclusionary. The good news is that most people these days are conscious about the language they use. We should all be able to fully express ourselves freely and openly but always in a respectful fashion, and this is only possible by understanding the root of language and disrespect.

One derogatory word that is often used is retard. There are some people with intellectual development disabilities and when the r-word is used to describe someone or something you think is bad or stupid it becomes another thoughtless hurtful word. The R-word campaign is an initiative that supports the elimination of the derogatory use of the r-word from everyday speech and promotes the acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities. The reality is, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities face prejudice and discrimination on a regular basis and the use of that word hurts individuals and their families.

What about the use of the phrases “so gay” and “no homo”? Casual homophobia and transphobia is often present in everyday language despite the fact that it promotes the continued alienation and isolation of our LGBTQ community. The website is an initiative by the University of Alberta to capture real time homophobic language use on twitter. Reposting of these tweets is purely to raise awareness, not to endorse any of it.

Gendered slurs have been normalized as part of everyday language. For example, the word bitch is now freely used on TV, in publications and on the radio as a synonym for woman. The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) Human Rights Code, regulates against abusive or unduly discriminatory material or comment which is based on matters of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability. However, because the word bitch has been normalized to the point that it is now included in dictionaries as an acceptable term, it is not considered discriminatory. The word bitch is distasteful because it degrades women.

There is a common societal practice of fat shaming. Fat shaming is a form of body shaming that involves is the singling out and prejudice against people whose body size does not fit into an “acceptable” social norm. Even in polite society where racial and gender based judgments are unacceptable, mocking overweight people is a common practice. Media and marketing campaigns often use fat-shaming as a motivator for change which achieves nothing. Fat shaming does not “scare anybody into thinness”; it just exacerbates feelings of self-hate. We should all take it upon ourselves to regularly challenge and question media sources that belittle or dehumanize anyone whose body type is not considered mainstream thin.

Words are used as bullying tactic. People are often dismissive of the power in words, how often do we hear, “Oh they didn’t mean it”. The saying, sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt you, is a ridiculous statement because words that hurt often stay with us for a lifetime.

In the spirit of enjoying our language liberties, what is the appropriate way to deal with problematic language?

  • Unlearn vocabulary – First and foremost is to check in with ourselves and examine our everyday language and make an effort to ensure our language is always respectful. It’s not as hard as you may think. As long as we become more consciously aware, it becomes easy to catch ourselves in time. Soon, these words will no longer be part of your vocabulary.
  • (If comfortable to do so) let the person that made the hurtful comment / remark know the impact it had on them.
  • Check in with each other – Real friends will not take offense if you catch their language when it’s derogatory. Ask them to tell you too, if you say something unkind. We are all human and we will make mistakes from time to time so be patient with yourself in this unlearning process. Take back words that slip out accidentally and apologize.
  • What if it’s a stranger or an acquaintance that you’re not really friends with? This is tricky because it can be an intimidating situation. Do you risk saying something or let it go and be a passively accepting bystander? I recommend more often than not, pointing to the elephant in the room. Acknowledge the offensive phrase or word by using carefully constructed and non-confrontational language. Be an upstander, the world needs more of those.

What if you’re on the receiving end of an offensive remark? How do you deal?

  • The first and most important step is to acknowledge and evaluate your feelings – You’re hurt because someone said something that had a huge impact on you. The acknowledgment of one’s feelings is the most important step in the healing process.
  • Forgive and forget (easier said than done) – Hurt enslaves our minds and our memories. Forgiving causes a dramatic change in our lives.
  • If you feel comfortable enough, confide in someone – Silence is a prison and it achieves nothing. Telling someone or writing it down on a piece of paper (and destroying the paper) is a liberating and empowering process. It will feel like a burden has been lifted.

Are you looking for someone to talk to, Counseling and Disability Services has amazing counselors who are trained and are ready to talk to you confidentially. They are located in Room N110 of the Bennett Centre for Student Services or by phone at 416-736-5297 (9am to 4:30pm – Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday; 9am to 7pm, Tuesday).

In our society, words are constantly changing in meaning and new words are coming up all the time. It is important to examine our language and be mindful of the impact it has on those around us.

That’s all folks…for now at least.


7 thoughts on “Inclusive Language: Words Hurt Us All

  1. Well said! I try very hard to (gently, and sometimes not-so-gently) call people out on offensive language, but sometimes it does start to feel like you’re all alone in caring! Thanks for the post 🙂

  2. This is wonderful! It’s great to see people bringing awareness to such a common and pervasive problem in society. I especially appreciate that you’ve provided active steps toward a solution. Awareness is half the battle, but actively restructuring commonplaces and misused terms is the goal! The University of Maryland actually just started a campus-wide campaign to raise awareness, you can check it out at
    Also, I LOVE the topography of these posters. “Buy a dictionary.” Classic.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s