School of Public Health’s Rothenberger Institute Prioritizing Inclusive Language

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

By Laurie Lucachick, teaching specialist and Sarah Sevcik, teaching specialist, Rothenberger Institute

Language is a complex phenomenon that affects and reflects our identities. It’s also one of our main tools for teaching and learning, but if we aren’t sensitive and aware, it can get in the way of our intentions to contribute to a culture that supports equity, inclusion, respect, and growth--the type of culture that educational institutions have a responsibility to provide to students. Those enrolled at the University of Minnesota come from a broad range of backgrounds and life experiences, all of which are welcomed and celebrated. Language is instrumental in making this possible.

We in the School of Public Health’s Rothenberger Institute (RI) have been intentional in our focus on inclusion in the development of our online health and wellness curriculum--for example by adopting and promoting use of inclusive language in our course materials--as well as through all aspects of our operations. We recognize that thoughtful expression using terms that are sensitive to the diverse identities and experiences in our community is imperative in this. We also need to leave space in everything we do to adapt, change, and accommodate the new ways in which individuals express their identities and be sensitive to how definitions and meanings can change depending on culture, places of origin, generation, and other factors. Below we’ve included a few suggestions of places to make changes, based on our own experiences.

Consider the language you use:

In thinking about language used, consider pronouns, person-centered language, and other language around identities. For example, our course materials include a variety of pronouns, which we introduce to students via a statement in our course syllabi. When describing individuals, we use the singular ‘they’ until we know their preferred pronouns, the language they use to talk about their identities, conditions, or diagnoses, and person-centered language.

Review the research you use:

Consider the data sources, methodology and reporting of research you cite. For example, many research studies refer to binary labels, such as men and women or male and female. In these cases, you could state that you realize researchers may have misidentified some participants’ gender or sex assigned at birth, excluded those who didn’t identify with the terms used, or neglected to realize how using binary labels in their data collection and reporting can exclude people. While it might be the only or best data available on a given topic and therefore you want to use the data, it’s still useful to point out the potentially exclusionary nature of the study and signify the inclusionary limitations to your reader. RI includes a syllabus statement letting students know we are aware of these limitations.

Revisit your Mission/Vision:

Does your organization's mission or vision statement incorporate inclusive language and inclusive practices in general? If not, consider whether it might be important for you to adapt the statement. For example, RI’s mission statement includes commitments to inclusion, universal design, non-judgement and respect. As a team, these guiding principles remind us to act according to our values. All of our work--from curriculum writing to recruitment, hiring, and training of our staff--is influenced by these shared commitments. For instance, we purposely and proactively allocate the additional resources needed to provide voice-over audio for our online lesson text and quality closed captions in our videos because we believe they are essential to align with our value of following the principles of universal design.

Be open:

We believe the work of equity and diversity is ongoing and belongs to everyone. It requires building trust through listening and risk-taking and sometimes disagreement and admitting fault. In doing this work you will make mistakes and find opportunities to correct yourself and thank others for helping you grow. Changes may not happen overnight, but we can (and should) all do the work to make our university a more inclusive space.

Visit the Rothenberger Institute website for additional information about our curriculum.

RI courses are offered at the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Duluth, and Crookston campuses, as well as many other colleges in MN and across the country. Students at the University of Minnesota can enroll in RI courses through MyU or multi-institutional registration.





Bravo for thinking about inclusive language. Please consider using person first language when talking about people of size, as well. Instead of using obese persons, which is a highly stigmatized and medicalized frame to talk about an individual, use people of size. This will go a long way in showing that you are truly inclusive of all identities.

University Affiliation: 
Staff - Neurology

Please be mindful of sizist and able-ist language as well. One example is "person of size" rather than "obese person."
This inclusion work also includes ensuring accessibility in seating, etc.

University Affiliation: 

To clarify, this comment wasn't in reference to the word obesity in the article, it is a reminder to the Institute to remember fat people when they are considering person first language, because in most iterations of equity and diversity work and inclusive language policy, fat people are left out, especially in a public health environment where obesity is used most frequently. This is a term that is really disliked within the fat liberation community, because of the stigma associated with it.

University Affiliation: 
Laurie Lucachick, Rothenberger Institute

Thank you so much for bringing attention to language around size and ability as well. While the only examples we included were regarding language around sex and gender, we are very happy to see this discussion continue addressing issues around other identities or demographic characteristics. It is important to change language-use habits or trends that may unintentionally lead to offense, marginalization, misrepresentation, and/or the perpetuation of stereotypes.


"Perspectives" stories are the views and opinions of their authors and do not necessarily reflect any official position of the University of Minnesota.