Here at We ❤️ Health Literacy HQ, hearing from you, our dear readers, is one of our favorite things. And when we can, we ❤️ to feature real-life questions from our community — which is what we’ve got for you today.
It’s one we’re hearing from lots of folks in various contexts right now: With the current focus on using inclusive language in health comm… oh, and let’s pause to acknowledge how great it is that we can say there’s a current focus on inclusive language in health comm — hooray! Okay, back to the question: In today’s health communication landscape, how can we make sure our language is inclusive and clear?
There are a couple things to acknowledge right up front. First, language is evolving very quickly. This may be especially true for topics like sexuality, gender, and disability — things that shape who we are and how we experience the world. That means people may come to our materials with wildly different vocabularies and expectations. Some people may feel affirmed and validated when they see newer, more inclusive terms. But people who aren’t familiar with these terms may feel confused or even alienated by them. That’s the reality of our communication landscape at the moment, and it can make things tricky.
And on a related note, the answer to specific terminology questions in this context is almost always going to be… it depends. Of course that’s not actionable advice, but it feels important to “say out loud” nonetheless. There just isn’t generalizable guidance in this space, and that means we need to be really intentional and think through language nuances on a case-by-case basis. It’s our actual job!
That said, there’s plenty we can do. As a starting point, we can acknowledge these differences and approach our work with empathy for both groups of readers. And while there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, here are some ideas for how to balance inclusivity and plain language best practices:
- Pair newer, more inclusive terms with more familiar terms. For example, one reader asked specifically if “chestfeeding” might confuse people used to seeing “breastfeeding.” In that case, you might want to use “chestfeeding (also called breastfeeding).” You can also ditch the parenthesis, as in “women and people with uteruses.” It may not always be the most elegant phrasing, but it can be quite effective.
- Offer specific examples to contextualize newer terms. Never underestimate the power of examples! If you’re writing about mobility aids, consider adding some examples like this: “mobility aids — like wheelchairs, canes, or walkers.” Simple and clear for the win.
- Segment your audience. The more specific your audience, the more you can get to know them (see next tip) and the more informed your starting point will be. For example, if you’re creating a material that’s specifically for trans and nonbinary people, it’s pretty likely they’ll be familiar with newer terms and concepts related to gender.
- Test, talk, and listen. If you’re wondering if we’ll ever get tired of plugging research with your priority audience, the answer is absolutely not! It’s always best to ask your audience about their language preferences (just don’t use “preferences” if you’re asking about pronouns). If you can’t do formal research, get a gut check from an audience member — or someone who might be more familiar with your audience than you. Ask your colleagues, family members, and friends. Talk about the issues that come up. Listen. We bet you’ll learn a lot.
- Check out resources created by and for your audience. For example, if you’re creating materials about gender and sexuality for autistic adults, you might check out resources from the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network to get a pulse on issues that are important to autistic LGBTQ+ people — and what language-related conversations might be going on at the moment.
The bottom line: It can be tricky to balance clear and inclusive language — but we can do it, and it’s really worth it.
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