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Inclusive Language

McMaster’s diverse and inclusive community is at the heart of the Brighter World brand.

In all of our communications, we must ensure we respect and celebrate the diverse community that makes McMaster such a wonderful place to work, live and study. Here are some tips to help you do just that.

Expandable List

Indigenous Peoples

  • At McMaster, we follow the Canadian Press style guide and their direction on how to write about Indigenous Peoples.
  • Use “Indigenous Peoples” [uppercase] and avoid using “Aboriginal” or “Native.”
  • Avoid the common possessive construction “Canada’s Indigenous Peoples.” To many, it evokes a sense of paternalism and colonialism. Use “Indigenous Peoples in Canada” instead.
  • Indigenous Peoples in Canada are not a single, homogenous group. Strive to include details about the group, people or community whenever possible, and respect their personal preferences when determining how they should best be identified.
  • Indigenous Peoples in Canada include First Nations, Métis and Inuit.
  • Use “First Nation” or “community” instead of “reserve,” unless the story is specifically about the tract of land allocated to a First Nation.
  • Do not use “reservation” or “tribal affiliation,” which are Americanisms.
  • Be guided by the preferences of those concerned.
  • Ask for spellings and preferred usage.
  • McMaster’s land acknowledgement:
    • McMaster University recognizes and acknowledges that it is located on the traditional territories of the Mississauga and Haudenosaunee nations, and within the lands protected by the Dish With One Spoon wampum agreement. 
    • NOTE: The quotation marks around Dish With One Spoon have been removed.
  • MSU Diversity Services offers several fact sheets, including Introduction to Land Acknowledgements
  • The Canadian Association of University Teachers
  • The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, including the 94 Calls to Action:
  • Reporting in Indigenous Communities” – a website from CBC reporter Duncan McCue
  • A reference source from the University of British Columbia for scholars, students and the general public:
  • Use “person-first language” such as “a person with a disability,” unless the individual has indicated otherwise. Some persons with disabilities identify with disability-first language (“Disabled person”, “Deaf person”, “Autistic person”), often signaling a politicized community affiliation. It is appropriate to describe a person as such who self-identifies.
  • Avoid categorizing persons with disabilities as a homogenous group, such as “the disabled” or “the deaf.” Persons with disabilities comprise communities who embody highly varied and non-homogenous spectrums of lived experiences and should be portrayed as such.
  • Use words that are factual, inclusive and non-emotional. For example: “She uses a wheelchair” rather than “she is confined to a wheelchair.”
  • Avoid clichés that are derogatory in nature and assume everyone is able-bodied, such as “the blind leading the blind” or something “fell on deaf ears”.
  • Avoid categorizing persons with disabilities as super-achievers, survivors, tragic figures or individuals in need of charity or pity; avoid language such as “suffering with,” “afflicted by,” etc. Additionally, avoid over-medicalizing persons with disabilities (e.g. portraying persons with disabilities as someone that needs to be “cured.”)
  • Avoid obviously ableist language, including portraying something / someone as “crazy” or “nuts” or someone as “crippled”, “differently abled”, “special”, with “special needs” or language that is otherwise pejorative and infantilizing in nature.
  • Recognize that the “R-Word” is a disability slur and should also be avoided.


    • Use descriptive navigation phrases for readers, such as “refer to,” “check” or “go to” instead of “see”, “look” or “hear”.
    • These phrases should then point the reader toward a meaningful link – a hyperlink that has been embedded in descriptive text – attending to considerations for both sighted and non-sighted readers.

Writing about people with disabilities:

  • When persons with disabilities are featured in stories, despite there being several possible angles to the writing, human interest story lines tend to dominate headlines
    • If the disability is not relevant to the context, it is not necessary to write about it.
    • Be guided by the preferences of those concerned (e.g. the person with disability about whom you might be writing or interviewing). If you aren’t sure, just ask. 
  • Refer to these McMaster University sites for further McMaster-specific support:
  • McMaster Accessibility Hub and McMaster’s Student Accessibility Services
  • For further resources in supporting respectful portrayals of persons with disabilities, go to the Government of Canada site, A Way with Words and Images.

Gendered language can increase gender bias by positioning once specific gender as the norm (e.g., “chairman” or “stewardess”) or reinforces a false gender binary (e.g., “the person will be held accountable for his/her actions”).

By contrast, gender-neutral language is inclusive and eradicates gender bias.

  • Use academic and professional titles, but avoid using Mr., Ms, Miss, Mx, Mrs.
  • Mx is gaining traction for members of the community who wish to disrupt the gender binary or who wish to avoid indicating their gender.
  • Don’t mention the individual’s marital or family status — e.g., single, married, divorced, grandmother — unless it is relevant and important.
    • Would this information be used if the subject were a cisgender man?
  • Use gender-neutral terms to describe occupations:
    • Examples: “Police officer” (instead of “policeman”), “firefighter” (instead of “fireman”), “flight attendant” (instead of “stewardess”), “mail carrier” (instead of “mailman”), “server” or “wait staff” (instead of “hostess”), “massage therapist” (instead of “masseuse”)
    • Avoid adding “male” or “female” before an occupation that is dominated by a particular gender (e.g., don’t say “male nurse” or “female pilot”) unless their gender is relevant to the conversation.
  • Use “chair” rather than “chairman” or “chairperson.”
  • Use “graduate” or “grad,” rather than “alumnus” or “alumna.”
  • On forms and surveys
    • Use “parent/guardian 1” and “parent/guardian 2 (if applicable),” rather than “mother” and “father”.
    • Avoid asking for gender unless there is a reason it is needed.
  • Alternatives to “man” or “mankind”:
    • “person,” “individual,” “people,” “human beings,” “humanity,” “the human race”
  • Alternatives to “ladies and gentlemen”
    • “esteemed guests,” “scholars,” “students,” “staff and faculty,” “friends”
  • Alternatives to “guys”
    • “y’all,” “everyone,” “folks,” “friends,” “team”
  • Alternatives to “manmade”
    • “artificial,” “constructed,” “manufactured,” “synthetic”
  • Pronouns: Where possible, reword your sentence to avoid the “he-she/him-her” gender binary, or use the gender-neutral pronouns “they/them/theirs”:
    • NO: Each staff member will have $50 added to his or her pay.
    • YES: Staff members will receive a $50 raise. OR Staff members will have $50 added to their pay.
  • Use singular “They/them/their” pronouns for those who prefer them.

Language about gender identity and other social identities continues to evolve. When writing about a person or group of people, remain sensitive to and respectful of their self-identification.

  • A person’s gender identity and/or sexual orientation should not be mentioned unless relevant to the story. (If so, use the phrase “sexual orientation,” not “sexual preference.”)
  • Gender identity:
    • An individual’s personal and internal sense of their gender, which may or may not conform to their sex assigned at birth.
  • Gender expression:
    • How a person publicly expresses or presents their gender. This can include behaviour and outward appearance such as dress, hair, makeup, body language and voice. A person’s chosen name and pronoun are also common ways of expressing gender. Others perceive a person’s gender through these attributes.
  • Cisgender:
    • A person whose identity matches their sex assigned at birth.
  • Transgender (not “transgendered”):
    • A person whose gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth.
    • Use the gender-affirming pronoun, even when writing about the individual’s life before their public transition.
    • Transgender people might be straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, queer or questioning.
  • Non-binary, gender non-conforming, genderqueer
  • Two-Spirit (not “two-spirited”):
    • An umbrella term used within Indigenous communities to refer to those who are a third, fourth, or fifth gender. This term is only for use by Indigenous people. Two-Spirit people may also identify as queer or transgender.
  • Pronouns:
    • When referring to someone in third person, we have to use the correct pronouns. Some people use the gendered pronouns “he/him/his” or “she/her/hers,” and some use genderless pronouns like “they/them/theirs” or “zie/zim/zir.” Some people may also use multiple sets of pronouns, like “she/her” and “they/them,” which could be written as “she/they.”
    • We often assume someone’s gender and pronouns based on their appearance, however our assumptions aren’t always right and can cause harm. Using the correct pronouns is a way of showing respect.
    • Intentionally using the wrong pronouns is harassment based on gender identity and is not okay.
    • For cisgender people, including your pronouns in your email signature or when you introduce yourself (“Hi I’m LJ, I use he/him pronouns”) are simple and effective ways to normalize the idea that we shouldn’t assume others’ pronouns. For transgender people, the choice to include pronouns in signatures and introductions is one to make when you feel safe and comfortable to do so.
  • A reference guide:
    • The Pride Community Centre, run by the McMaster Students Union, has a 2STLGBQIA+ Handbook that can be used to understand terms and topics related to gender and sexual diversity.
    • The 519, a Toronto-based non-profit, offers resources to learn about transgender, non-binary, genderqueer, Two-Spirit and gender-diverse people

The Ontario Human Rights Commission uses the above language (“members of racialized communities”), which encompasses members of Black communities, South Asian communities, individuals who identify as bi-racial, and may include faith-based communities that are frequently racialized such as Muslim, Orthodox Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, etc.

  • Current best practice is “racialized person” or “racialized group” instead of the more outdated and  inaccurate terms, “racial minority,” “visible minority,” “person of colour,” etc.
  • “Black” with a capital B refers to people of the African diaspora. Use as an adjective; never use as a noun, either singular or plural.
  • Note that racial categories are socially constructed and complex; individuals and groups are entitled to self-identify.
  • Be guided by the preferences of those concerned.
  • Ask for spellings and preferred usage.

McMaster resources

  • McMaster University is committed to advancing the culture of accessibility, equity and human rights. The Equity and Inclusion Office works with campus and community partners to promote, develop and support equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives.
  • McMaster University strives to create an inclusive community for all. How information is presented, and the technologies that are used to share information, greatly shape a person’s experience. Promoting a communications infrastructure that takes the needs of persons with disabilities into account is a priority for McMaster and a priority in our goal to create a brighter world. The McMaster Brand Guidelines have been created with accessibility in mind to foster a clear and consistent information-scape across campus.