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Most major colleges have a style guide in place with school-approved logos, Pantone-specific school colors and the usual editorial guides. But too often, one important guide is left out -- the correct language to use around diversity.

There are many initiatives on campuses across the nation to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in their communities. Appropriate language in written and spoken communications needs to be a part of that. This terminology and usage are continually shifting and evolving, and agreed-upon guidelines for terminology have become critical. In short, the wrong word hurts -- and the right word shows you get it.

As the parent of a nonverbal child with disabilities, I have always been prickly about language. People outside this world seldom understand how important correct terminology is. In fact, my family and I have been on the “language police squad” for the better part of 20 years -- simply as a defender of my child’s dignities and rights.

Today, working closely with my editorial team and our Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Aldelphi University in New York, I help keep -- and regularly update -- a Guide to Inclusive Language as a separate page within our style guide and brand center. 

Ours is divided into these sections: Race and Ethnicity; Gender and Sexuality; Pronouns, Including Gender-Neutral Nouns; Disabilities; and a few others that fail to fall into categories but are equally important. (As an example: “Unless an official title or direct quote from a person or historical document, use the terms enslaved person, enslaver and enslavement instead of slave, slave owner and slavery to acknowledge the humanity of those were or are enslaved, both past and present.”)

Here are a few top-line suggestions from Adelphi’s guide:

  • Capitalize Black when referring to people of African descent, and learn the proper way to refer to groups; i.e., Black students, not Blacks.
  • Capitalize Indigenous when referring to the original inhabitants of an area.
  • Hispanic refers to people from Spanish-speaking countries. Latino/a/LatinX is a person of Latin American descent who can be of any background or language. Spanish-speaking people in Spain and outside Latin America are Hispanic but not Latino/a/LatinX. Confused? Many are. According to the Pew Institute, only 3 percent of U.S. adults who self-identify as Hispanic or Latino use the term LatinX; for this reason, in our communications, we prefer Hispanic.
  • The abbreviation AAPI stands for Asian American and Pacific Islander; we spell it out in our guide, as it often causes confusion or is misrepresented as APPI.
  • Indian only refers to people from India. The correct term is Native American. Sadly, this note is still required.
  • We allow the terms accessible parking and accessible elevators -- not handicapped, which is an offensive word to many.
  • First-year is preferred over freshmen. Interestingly, The Chronicle of Higher Education and other higher ed publications often still use the term freshmen, and sometimes Adelphi does, too. Language shifts sometime take time.
  • Plural pronouns are becoming more widely accepted as gender-neutral singular pronouns. In other words, instead of his or her we simply use their. At our university’s Transgender Awareness Week last year, it was stressed that getting pronouns right is one of the most important ways to make non-gender-conforming students feel honored and respected.
  • We use person-first language, i.e., student with disabilities, rather than disabled student -- although many advocates increasingly prefer the term disabled.

This guide is frequently updated based on requests from our community, who now have a place to affirm their preferred language. A few recent examples of changes:

  • The term LGBTQ+ is under advisement to become LGBTQIA+ to be more inclusive.
  • Adelphi trustee and alumna Emily Ladau ’17 recently noted how offensive the terms wheelchair bound or confined to a wheelchair are to those who use a wheelchair. She notes that she is, in fact, given freedom through her power wheelchair. We added her preferred term, wheelchair user, to our guide just this week.
  • Our Bridges to Adelphi program requested a change from the term students with autism spectrum disorder to students on the autism spectrum as they felt the former was pejorative.

We also must remember that, in the end, personal preference or self-identification must be respected and comes before all university guidelines. Stephen Shore, a clinical assistant professor in our Ruth S. Ammon School of Education who often speaks on the topic of autism alongside renowned advocate Temple Grandin, proudly calls himself autistic.

As we note in the Guide to Inclusive Language, “words have the power to unite or divide us, to make your audience feel accepted or rejected.” Communicators at other universities and colleges should create a space online for language that enlightens, rather than offends. It is a small way we in higher academia can all create a kinder, more inclusive world.

Joanna Templeton is lead editor and senior director of content for UCOMM at Adelphi University.

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