Inclusive language

A guide to using inclusive language on NHS inform

Accessibility services

Avoid language that will exclude or offend when describing who might use an accessibility service. For example, do not describe BSL services as being for people with deafness or hearing loss.

How to write about accessibility services

Don’t use:

‘If you have difficulties hearing or communicating you can call NHS 24 (18001 111) on a textphone.’

Use:

‘If you use a textphone you can contact NHS 24 on 18001 111.’

‘You can contact NHS 24 by textphone on 18001 111.’

Age

This is a general guide on describing age in content. But, this may vary depending on the page topic.

Here are some examples of how to write about age on NHS inform:

  • fertilised egg – from conception to 14 days
  • embryo – from 2 to 9 weeks
  • unborn baby – from week 10 to birth
  • baby – 0 to 12 months
  • infant – less than 2 years
  • toddler – 1 to 3 years
  • child – 1 to 12 years
  • young people – 12 to 17 and, in some cases, 12 to 26
  • adults – anyone over 18
  • older people – people over 65

Avoid referring to someone’s age, unless it’s relevant to what you’re writing about.

Be accurate about what you’re referring to. For example, ‘people over 70’ is different from ‘people aged 70 or over’.

Use hyphens or ‘to’ for age ranges, rather than en dashes.

Ages should also be listed between commas. For example, John Smith, 32, a doctor. This should not be written as ‘aged 32’.

Autism

Use the following language when writing about autism:

  • autistic people
  • autistic person
  • someone who is autistic

BSL

When writing about British Sign Language (BSL), don’t use:

  • deaf BSL users
  • language that suggests only deaf people or those with hearing loss use BSL

Use:

  • deaf users of British Sign Language (BSL)

Care experience

Use ‘care experienced person or people’.

Deafness and hearing loss

When writing about deafness and hearing loss, don’t use:

  • impairment
  • impaired
  • D/deaf
  • deafened

Use:

  • deaf
  • deafness
  • hearing loss
  • deaf and hearing loss
  • deaf person or people
  • people who are hard of hearing – people with mild to moderate hearing loss who find hearing aids helpful
  • people who have an acquired profound hearing loss (APHL) – people who were born able to hear but become severely deaf after learning to speak
  • deafblind people or person – people with a dual sensory impairment who may have some sight loss and some hearing loss

Disability

Always use positive language about disability. Don’t use outdated terms that stereotype, stigmatise, label or depersonalise.

When speaking about disabilities, you should put the person first.

Don’t use:

  • afflicted by
  • the disabled
  • sufferer
  • suffering from
  • victim of
  • struck down by
  • handicapped
  • invalid
  • spastic
  • cripple
  • sufferer
  • people with disabilities

Use:

  • people living with
  • people with
  • person with
  • disabled person or people
  • person with a mental health problem
  • person with a mental health condition
  • person with a learning difficulty

Use ‘non-disabled person or people’ when describing differences between disabled people and non-disabled people.

Further information about inclusive language

Further information on the Scottish Commission for Learning Disability

Disease, sickness and illness

You can use disease, sickness, illness but it’s better to use condition.

Don’t use:

  • sick person
  • the sick
  • the ill
  • diseased
  • disease carrier
  • special needs (as in ‘a special needs person’) but bear in mind that some people do have defined ‘special needs’

Use:

  • specific need(s)
  • individual need(s)

Gender

Use gender neutral and inclusive language like ‘they’ and ‘them’.

Refer to ‘people’ (not ‘men’ or ‘women’) unless you have to medically.

To reference specific body parts say:

  • ‘women and anyone with a cervix’
  • ‘men and anyone with a prostate’

Use ‘transgender’ or ‘trans’ as an umbrella term to describe people whose current gender identity differs from the sex they were registered with at birth. Only use this if it’s relevant to the topic being discussed.

Use ‘gender identity’. This is what an individual experiences as their innate sense of themselves as a man, woman or as having a non-binary identity.

Use ‘transitioning’. This is the steps a trans person may take to live in the gender with which the identify.

Mental health

Don’t use:

  • mental handicap
  • mentally ill
  • madness
  • backward
  • retarded
  • victim of
  • suffering from
  • afflicted by
  • slow and other outdated terms.

Use:

  • a person with mental health problems
  • people with learning difficulties
  • mental illness
  • mental health condition

See Me Scotland has further information on mental health terminology

More on mental health

Don’t use:

  • ‘a schizophrenic’ or ‘a depressive’
  • ‘the mentally ill’, ‘a person suffering from’ ‘a sufferer’, a ‘victim’ or ‘the afflicted’
  • ‘prisoners’ or ‘inmates’ (in a psychiatric hospital)
  • ‘released’ (from a hospital)

Instead try to use:

  • someone who ‘has a diagnosis of’ is ‘currently experiencing’ or ‘is being treated for…‘
  • ‘mental health patients’ or ‘people with mental health problems’
  • ‘patients’, ‘service users’ or clients
  • ‘discharged’

Other common mistakes

‘Schizophrenic’ or ‘bipolar’ shouldn’t be used to mean ‘two minds’ or a ‘split personality’.

Somebody who’s angry is not ‘psychotic’.

A person who’s down or unhappy isn’t the same as someone experiencing clinical depression.

Race

Aim to specify groups where possible.

Use:

  • minority ethnic groups, people, employees or communities
  • people with mixed ethnic background

Don’t use:

  • ethnic minorities
  • non-white
  • BME or BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic)

Further information on when to refer to ethnicity

Sexual orientation

Use language about sexuality when it’s helpful to signpost or help people get the health information and access to treatment they need. For example, when talking about specific health services or sexual health content.

Use words like:

  • lesbian
  • gay
  • bisexual
  • men who have sex with men (MSM includes men who may not identify as gay)

Further information on writing about sex, gender and sexuality

Substance dependence

Use:

  • person or people with a substance problem
  • person or people with a substance dependency
  • person or people with problem drug or alcohol use
  • substance – when speaking about psychoactive substances
  • substances including alcohol – when speaking about psychoactive substances, including alcohol

Do not use:

  • addict
  • alcoholic
  • drink (or any casual term)
  • ‘abusing’ a substance
  • ‘misusing’ a substance

Further information on terms used in substance use

Unpaid carers

Use ‘unpaid carer’ not ‘carer’. ‘Carer’ can be confused with members of the social care workforce.

Unpaid carers provide care and support to family members, friends or neighbours. The people they care for may be affected by disability, physical or mental ill-health, frailty or substance abuse.