Inclusive and Affirming Language

At UMBC, we welcome and celebrate our diverse community of students, staff, faculty, and alumni. We strive to create an inclusive atmosphere that respects the broad spectrum of identities and backgrounds of all Retrievers. Inclusivity begins with our language. To that end, the university offers this living document on inclusive, welcoming language.

This is not a comprehensive guide but meant to offer a path forward. We recognize that all languages shift over time and we should continually examine and adjust our communications. Should you have any questions about the content on this page, or if you’re looking for guidance on certain word usage, please contact us at the emails on the Style Guide homepage.

Below are some commonly used titles and phrases that rely on an unnecessarily gendered perspective. These are only examples and do not capture the breadth of this practice, but please bear in mind that words with masculine markers (or feminine, though they are less common) can and should be replaced with non-gender–specific language.


  • freshman → first-year student
  • mankind → humanity, people, human beings
  • the best man for the job → the best person for the job
  • man-made → synthetic, manufactured, machine-made
  • manning the booth → staffing the booth
  • chairman → chairperson, coordinator (of a committee or department), moderator (of a meeting), presiding officer, head, chair
  • businessman → business executive
  • congressman → congressional representative

Additionally, instead of using expressions that include only two genders (i.e., ladies and gentlemen, sir and madam), the terms below allow your speech and writing to invite inclusion to all members of the community. The exact language that should be used in a specific situation depends on context and judgment.


  • esteemed guests
  • this person
  • friends and colleagues
  • students
  • siblings
  • everyone
  • the participant
  • faculty members
  • family
  • people
  • children

The easiest way to know how to refer to someone is to ask how they refer to themself, including what pronouns they use. Modeling this behavior by first sharing your own pronouns creates an environment where people feel safe to share their pronouns. Singular “they” is an acceptable form to use if you are unsure, or you can use the person’s name in place of a pronoun.

In group settings, to avoid singling anyone out, make this a commonplace habit that is part of regular introductions. The first step to creating a welcoming atmosphere in person and online is treating others the way they want to be treated, and that includes utilizing an inclusive range of pronouns that reflect people’s identities.

In general usage, there are several alternative approaches to using a singular, gendered pronoun.

  • Recast into the plural.
    • Use: Give students their papers as soon as they are finished.
    • Not: Give each student his paper as soon as he is finished.
  • Reword to eliminate gender.
    • Use: The average student is worried about grades.
    • Not: The average student is worried about her grades.

When writing about any community member, we encourage you to ask how they identify and what language they use about themselves when possible. When specifically writing about people with disabilities, keep in mind that some people might prefer identity-first language while others use people-first language. At all times, maintain neutral language about disability—avoid characterizing disabilities as “conditions” or problems, and remember we’re only using these identifiers to add necessary context, not as labels. Be mindful that when writing about disability accommodations, the intent of an accommodation is to remove a barrier from an inaccessible environment so that individuals with disabilities have equal access and can fully participate.

Many disabilities, cognitive and physical, are invisible, so in general, keeping language as inclusive as possible better serves our whole community. Euphemisms such as differently-abled, special, or challenged are considered condescending. Below are some common examples of outdated language and some positive alternatives. As noted elsewhere in the Style Guide, language is constantly evolving, so these terms might change as well.


  • is handicapped → has a disability
  • wheelchair-bound, confined to a wheelchair → uses a wheelchair, is a wheelchair user, uses mobility aids
  • visually impaired → blind, legally blind, low vision, visual disability
  • hearing impaired → Deaf (the community), deaf (audiological status), hard-of-hearing, uses hearing aids, sign language user, lip reads
  • slow learner, special ed, special needs → has a learning (or cognitive) disability
  • special→ disability, disability-inclusive, accessible
  • brain damaged → person with a brain injury, traumatic brain injury
  • handicapped parking → accessible parking, parking with a disability hangtag/MVA placard
  • handicapped restroom → accessible restrooms

For more information, see the EDUCAUSE Inclusive Language Guide, the National Network for Information, Guidance, and Training on the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the National Center on Disability and Journalism.

Following guidance from the Diversity Style Guide, UMBC capitalizes Black, White, or Brown when writing about race. Phrases denoting heritage, such as Asian American and African American should not be hyphenated.

For guidance on making statements in support of Black community members, visit this page created by the Office of Equity and Inclusion.

UMBC is a community of people of all backgrounds who practice a variety of religious traditions, and those who practice none. In producing content for broad audiences, content creators should show respect and recognition of this fact by avoiding language or imagery that centers on one religion, assumes shared religious-cultural experiences (or assumes religious affiliation in general), or elevates one religion over another.

Be conscious of the fact that holidays happen all year round, and people may hold celebrations and observances at times other than those you recognize. As communicators we should aim to honor our community members’ religious traditions, encourage folks to share them, and learn about their experiences while still maintaining inclusive communications.

Suggestions for Inclusive Imagery

  • Campus images in different seasons
  • True Grit wearing weather-appropriate accessories (e.g., scarf, sunglasses, hat, visor)
  • Fun photos of squirrels or other campus wildlife
  • In the winter, use snowflakes, snowmen, mittens, scarves, sleds, and mugs of hot chocolate—rather than Christmas trees, wreaths, bells, holly, reindeer, gifts, dreidels, or menorahs. Use UMBC colors or, as appropriate, a full range of colors, rather than red and green or blue and silver.
  • In the spring, use flowers, other plants, and birds rather than bunnies, eggs, and chicks.
  • Remember that simply adding imagery from underrepresented religions to communications that center imagery from majority religions or holidays is often experienced as tokenizing or exclusionary rather than inclusive.

Suggestions for Inclusive Messaging

  • “Wishing you a wonderful spring break / winter break.”
  • “Wishing you peace, health, and happiness.”
  • “From our community to yours, best wishes for the new year.”

Guidance for Writers

  • Steer away from words and phrases associated with a particular holiday, like “merry and bright.”
  • Only cite a person’s religion if it is relevant to the story. Consult with your interviewee on how they identify and whether or how it may be part of the story.
  • Do not assume a person’s religious identity based on their country of origin, appearance, social ties, or name.
  • Be aware that people can identify in more than one way at the same time.
  • Portray people as complex human beings, not just representatives of identity groups.
  • Avoid stereotypical depictions and negative labels.
  • Always capitalize Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc. but do not use them as a substitute for a precise name of a denomination or subgroup, if applicable. Be specific and, wherever possible, let practitioners speak for themselves.
  • Be aware that terms like cult, sect, extremist, militant, radical, and fundamentalist can have negative connotations and can be offensive. Seek out more precise terms to describe religious movements outside the mainstream in ways that practitioners self-identify.
  • Avoid subjective, value-laden terms such as devout and pious to describe religious communities and people. Possible alternatives include practicing or observant, but it is best to ask the subject how they describe themselves.

Learn more about Initiatives for Identity, Inclusion, and Belonging here.

Adapted from Northwestern University’s editorial guidelines.

As language evolves, this style guide will expand and update to encompass those developments. We welcome additional ideas for resources and feedback on the available information, and also invite readers to see additional resources below.

UMBC Resources

External Resources