How to Avoid Bias in Your Writing
Gender and ability bias in language doesn’t register for many people, but that’s often because many of them do not belong to the classes who have been subjected to the bias. For example, many writers persist in referring to our species, collectively, as man or mankind, even though several reasonable alternatives exist: the human race, humankind, and humanity. Most (though not all) are men.
“Get over it” is a common counterargument to the assertion that because half of mankind is womankind, a gender-neutral alternative is more sensitive to that fact; man and mankind, the reasoning goes, have sufficed for most of recorded human history — sorry, I mean “man history” — and everybody knows it refers not just to the breadwinner, the man of the house, the king of the castle but also to the weaker sex, the little woman, the housewife.
Get my drift? Get over it, indeed. Man up, and join the human race.
One justification for opposing gender-neutral language is that it can be so cumbersome. Why convolutedly change he, as a generic term, to “he or she,” or his to “his or her”? We all know he or his can refer to a man or a woman, and English lacks an inclusive pronoun. (Except that it doesn’t — but I’ll get to that in a moment.)
Yes, repetitious use of “he or she” or “his or her” is ridiculous, but it’s easy to mix it up with it, the magical indeterminate pronoun, or to alternate between he and she or his and her in successive anecdotes, or to pluralize a reference and use they in place of a specific pronoun.
Or — gasp! — you can replace “he or she” with they. Kill the klaxon, switch off the warning lights, and think about it: They has been long used as a singular pronoun as well as a plural one. But not everybody agrees, so be prepared for pushback if you employ this solution.
References to physical disabilities are even more fraught with risks to sensitivity. Such constructions as “confined to a wheelchair” identify people by their limitations, which is discriminatory. It’s more respectful to refer to someone who “uses a wheelchair.”
What about, simply, “wheelchair users,” or “blind people,” or “deaf children”? These phrases violate what’s known as the people-first philosophy, which holds that any reference to a person should emphasize the person, not their disability.
So, refer to “Smith, who uses a wheelchair,” “people who are blind” or “people with visual impairments,” and “children who are deaf” or “children who are hearing impaired.” And it should go without saying that references to a disability are extraneous unless it is relevant to the discussion.
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