Gender, Sexual Orientation, People with Disabilities & Ethnicity

Aim to use inclusive language. An exclusive word is exclusive whether it strikes you that way or not. Things to avoid or to keep in mind to write in inclusive ways:

  • gender
  • stereotypes
  • sexual orientation
  • disabilities
  • ethnicities
  • graphics


Avoid gender-specific words, a lot of them containing man. Most are simple to replace: letter carrier or postal worker for mailman, fisher for fisherman, humankind or humanity for mankind, fair play for sportsmanship, workforce or staff for manpower, artificial or synthetic for man-made, staffed or ran for manned, modern society for modern man, first-year student for freshman.

In several instances, the suffix -man may simply be dropped: chair, news anchor, ombud.

Avoid gender-specific words related to women: actress (use actor), waitress (server), mother tongue (first language), maiden name (birth name).

Don’t use girl unless referring to a female 15 or younger. From 16 up, use woman or young woman. If an interviewee uses girl or girls inappropriately, paraphrase. don’t use lady or ladies unless they’re part of the name of an organization or publication. You can write ladies and gentlemen for a speech or other formal gathering.

Fellow: Use fellow in formal appointments such as Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, but otherwise avoid. Instead of fellow students, staff or faculty, use peers, colleagues, co-workers, associates, etc. Or use other: The Guelph professors are working with other researchers across Canada.

Instead of post-doctoral fellow, use post-doctoral researcher or post-doc whenever possible.

Graduates: Avoid using alumnus, alumna, etc. if you can use graduate or “grads.” Alumnus is singular male, alumna is singular female, alumni is plural male and alumnae is plural female. Any mixed group of men and women is alumni.

Pronouns: Try to avoid using gender-specific pronouns that may be exclusionary or ambiguous. You might write: A student must declare their major before the start of their third term. But that mixes up a singular student and a plural their. You might write his or her instead of their, although that may be awkward and redundant. In this case, it would be: A student must declare his or her major before the start of his or her third term.

A better solution is to make the subject plural: Students must declare their major before the start of their third term.

Another solution is to eliminate the reference to gender-specific pronouns: A student must declare a major before the start of third term.

People who do not identify along traditional gender lines may wish to be referred to by the pronoun of their choice, including “ze” for “he” or “she.” In these rare instances, follow the person’s preference.

With animals, use the pronoun it rather than he or she unless it’s in a quote or it’s the kind of story where it seems appropriate to humanize the animal.

Often, masculine nouns and pronouns precede the feminine equivalent (husband and wife, his and hers). Look to alternate your word order between masculine and feminine.


Including telling details about someone can add colour and help your reader “see” what you’re writing about, but avoid off-topic personal details. Avoid words that traditionally define men or women. Generally avoid references to an individual’s sex, as in woman doctor, female police officer, male nurse. Is it necessary in the story to mention race, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, age, ethnic affiliation, disability or personal appearance?

Do not assume that wives and husbands use the same surname.

Avoid hackneyed or condescending descriptors for members of a particular group: thoughtless teenagers, ignorant peasants, helpless victims, fragile seniors, plucky survivors.

Check photographs and illustrations to avoid visually stereotyping people in predictable ways.

Don’t bundle all members of a particular group into a single category as though all individuals bear the same characteristics or act in the same ways. Members of identifiable groups are still individuals.

Sexual orientation

Sexual orientation refers to a person’s sexuality. It is not the same thing as  sexual preference, which should be avoided as it implies that orientation is a matter of choice. Sexual orientation may involve issues of identity (including self-identity), inclusiveness and terminology, and may invite misinterpretation.

“Gender” does not mean the same thing as “sex.” Gender refers to social identity; sex refers to biological characteristics. Avoid references to “both sexes/genders” or “either sex/gender” that appear to cover all people.

Certain words and terms that began among outsiders as insults or slander may have been appropriated by groups for their own use; that doesn’t mean outsiders are welcome to use them.

Consider asking individuals — including LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) people — how they wish to be referred to in writing. By default, use common personal pronouns: he, she, him, her, they, etc. As above, some individuals not identifying along traditional gender lines may wish to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns such as ze for he or she.


Focus on the person rather than the disability. A disability is a condition, not the whole person. Write: people with disabilities or a person with a disability, not disabled people, a disabled person or the disabled. Don’t say a person suffers from a disability or is confined to a wheelchair. Say the person has a disability and uses a wheelchair. Or someone is living with a particular disability. Avoid using handicapped in your writing.

Avoid clichés that imply victimhood: afflicted with, stricken by, suffering from, needs crutches or is confined to a wheelchair. Say: affected by or with or moves with a wheelchair.

Don’t use normal to refer to people without a particular disability.

Disability or impairment is not the same thing as disease. A person who cannot walk because of a spinal injury has a disability but not necessarily an illness.

Mental illness, mental health or intellectual impairment are terms that often invite stigma and misunderstanding. Use specific clinical terms such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, psychosis and psychopathology accurately. As with any disability, avoid labelling the person as a schizophrenic, a manic-depressive or a paranoid. Use more specific possibilities: those coping with schizophrenia; a person showing paranoid symptoms.

The term “person with an intellectual (or developmental) disability” is preferred. As with physical disabilities, avoid using a noun to describe a person’s disability, as in a dyslexic or she is learning disabled. Instead, use a person with dyslexia or a woman with a learning disability.

The general term “deaf” refers to people with a range of hearing loss. As with hearing impaired, deaf does not mean that people communicate by speech or sign. Those who are hard of hearing have some hearing loss but still communicate primarily through speech.

The term “Deaf” (with a capital) may be used by deaf people who communicate mostly through sign language. Members of the Deaf community view deafness not as a disability but as a characteristic of their cultural identity.

The term blind or partially sighted is a respectful term that covers people with all degrees of vision loss. The Canadian National Institute for the Blind no longer uses terms like visually impaired, visually challenged or people with vision/sight problems.


Indigenous Peoples: See Indigenous Peoples.

Don’t hyphenate Chinese Canadian, African Canadian, Japanese Canadian, etc.

Avoid the use of native. Instead of saying someone is a Guelph native, say the person is Guelph-born, originally from Guelph, hails from Guelph, was raised in Guelph, etc.

Don’t capitalize black or white or similar references to someone’s ethnicity, unless it’s part of the proper name of a group or program.

The words anglophone and francophone refer to language use (English speakers and French speakers), not ethnic origins.

Write permanent resident rather than landed immigrant for someone legally residing in Canada without Canadian citizenship.

Immigrants to Canada are emigrants from another country.


Visual materials should not consistently exclude representation of women, Indigenous people, members of visible minorities and persons with disabilities.

Members of all groups should be depicted with equal dignity. Members of the designated group should be portrayed at all levels of authority and participation, and not in stereotyped roles or activities.