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Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility: Definitions and Language

Important Definitions

Gender expression is a person's behavior, mannerisms, interests, and appearance that are associated with gender in a particular cultural context, specifically with the categories of femininity or masculinity. This also includes gender roles. These categories rely on stereotypes about gender. Gender expression typically reflects a person's gender identity (their internal sense of their own gender), but this is not always the case. Gender expression is separate and independent both from sexual orientation and gender assigned at birth. A type of gender expression that is considered atypical for a person's externally perceived gender may be described as gender non-conforming. 

Race refers to physical differences that groups and cultures consider socially significant. For example, people might identify their race as Aboriginal, African American or Black, Asian, European American or White, Native American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, Māori, or some other race. Race refers to a person's physical characteristics, such as bone structure and skin, hair, or eye color. 
Ethnicity refers to shared cultural characteristics such as language, ancestry, practices, and beliefs.  Ethnicity, however, refers to cultural factors, including nationality, regional culture, ancestry, and language. ... You can have more than one ethnicity but you are said to have one race, even if it's "mixed race."

Sexual orientation refers to an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic. and/or sexual attractions to men, women. or both sexes. Sexual orientation also refers to a person's sense of identity-based on those attractions, related behaviors. and membership in a community of others who share those attractions. Research over several decades has demonstrated that sexual orientation ranges along a continuum, from exclusive attraction to the other sex to exclusive attraction to the same sex. However, sexual orientation is usually discussed in terms of three categories: heterosexual (having emotional, romantic, or sexual attractions to members of the other sex), gay/lesbian (having emotional, romantic. or sexual attractions to members of one's own sex), and bisexual (having emotional, romantic or sexual attractions to both men and women). This range of behaviors and attractions has been described in various cultures and nations throughout the world. Many cultures use identity labels to describe people who express these attractions. In the United States, the most frequent labels are lesbians (women attracted to women), gay men (men attracted to men), and bisexual people (men or women attracted to both sexes). However, some people may use different labels or none at all.

Sexual orientation is distinct from other components of sex and gender, including biological sex (the anatomical, physiological and genetic characteristics associated with being male or female), gender identity (the psychological sense of being male or female)* and social gender role (the cultural norms that define feminine and masculine behavior).

Sexual orientation is commonly discussed as if it were solely a characteristic of an individual, like biological sex, gender identity. or age. This perspective is incomplete because sexual orientation is defined in terms of relationships with others. People express their sexual orientation through behaviors with others, including such simple actions as holding hands or kissing. Thus, sexual orientation is closely tied to intimate personal relationships that meet deeply felt needs for love, attachment, and intimacy. In addition to sexual behaviors, these bonds include nonsexual physical affection between partners, shared goals and values, mutual support, and ongoing commitment. Therefore, sexual orientation is not merely a personal characteristic within an individual. Rather, one's sexual orientation defines the group of people in which one is likely to find the satisfying and fulfilling romantic relationships that are an essential component of personal identity for many people.

Faith traditions are religious associations or affiliations in which individual members indicate they identify. Examples include: African Methodist Episcopal, Church of God, Jewish Orthodox, Muslim, Presbyterian, and all other affiliations.

Nationality is the status of belonging to a particular nation, whether by birth or naturalization. 

Ability is the possession of the means or skill to do something.

The legal definition of veteran under Title 38 of the Code of Federal Regulations is “a person who served in the active military, naval, or air service and who was discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable.

Cultural Heritage is an expression of the ways of living developed by a community and passed on from generation to generation, including customs, practices, places, objects, artistic expressions and values.

Age is the length of time or the  amount of time during which a person, animal, or thing has lived or existed. Ageism is a type of discrimination that involves prejudice against people based on their age. 

Language Guide for Disability and Accessibility

Some individuals may feel that using language considered polite or inoffensive is unnecessary.  However, it's important to keep in mind that offensive language is offensive for a reason; various words and concepts used to describe disability all have their own histories and implications for people with disabilities (Linton, 1998).  Being "politically correct" does not make a term automatically inoffensive to a group of people; indeed, many "politically correct" words and phrases used to refer to disability can actually be insulting to some of the people to whom these labels are attached.

Saying "differently-abled" or "special," for instance, may seem on the surface to convey that someone with a disability has positive qualities about them.  However, terms like these tend to be euphemistic, and are not frequently used by the people to whom they refer (Linton, 1998, pp. 14-16).


"People-first" or "person-first" language is a way of describing disability that involves putting the word "person" or "people" before the word "disability" or the name of a disability, rather than placing the disability first and using it as an adjective.  Some examples of people-first language might include saying "person with a disability," "woman with cerebral palsy," and "man with an intellectual disability." The purpose of people-first language is to promote the idea that someone's disability label is just a disability label—not the defining characteristic of the entire individual.  Many guides on disability language and etiquette may likely emphasize using person-first language, except, perhaps, when discussing certain disability cultural groups that explicitly describe themselves with disability-first language.  Thus, while it is generally a safe bet to use people-first language, there are members of certain disability groups in the US who prefer not to use it, such as the American Deaf community and a number of Autistic people/Autistics.  The basic reason behind members of these groups' dislike for the application of people-first language to themselves is that they consider their disabilities to be inseparable parts of who they are.  Using person-first language, some also argue, makes the disability into something negative, which can and should be separated from the person.

When members of a group "reclaim" a word, they take a term that was previously used against them as a slur, and give it a positive meaning, within that particular group, as an expression of solidarity and pride in one's identity.  Some members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities, for example, have reclaimed the term "queer," a longtime degrading term for LGBT peoples.  Similarly, some disability cultural groups have reclaimed negative terms like "crip" (Linton, 1998).  Syracuse University's disability-themed comics symposium, "Cripping" the Comic Con, use "crip" in a reclaimed way.  However, in some cases, reclaimed terms may be very context-dependent, continuing to retain their original, negative connotations outside of the communities that seek to reclaim them.

While it may be appropriate for someone who is a member of a group to use a term in a reclaimed way due to having the personal experiences that allow them to understand when, why, and how to use such a term (and the implications of using it the wrong way), it may not be appropriate for someone outside of the group to do so.

In the context of certain disabilities, the same word or phrase can have different meanings depending on how certain letters are capitalized, and whether the words or phrases are split in unusual ways, such as with slashes or parentheses.  One of the classic examples of this is the difference between "big D" Deaf and "little d" deaf; whereas the term "deaf," with a lowercase "d," refers to one physically being deaf, when spelled with a capital "D," it refers to membership and/or affiliation with respect to Deaf culture and Deaf communities (American Heritage Dictionary, 2012; "D/deaf Culture," n.d.)  Members of some other disability communities also use capitalization at times to emphasize their cultural identification with these communities.

Guides to language use/etiquette (Note: these tend to emphasize person-first language):

  • United Spinal Association. (2008). Disability etiquette: Tips on interacting with people with disabilities. Jackson Heights, NY: Author. View PDF

Discussions on language use/disability studies, written by self-advocates and/or disability studies scholars:

  • Bell, C. M. (Ed.). (2011). Blackness and Disability: Critical examinations and cultural interventions. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.
  • Brown, L. (2011, August 4). The significance of semantics: Person-first language: Why it matters. In Autistic HoyaLearn More
  • Brown, L. (2012). Ableist words and terms to avoid. In Autistic HoyaLearn More
  • Brown, L. (2012). Autism FAQ. In Autistic HoyaLearn More
  • (Brown's Blog, has a number of instructive posts on disability language, from the perspectives of members of the Autistic community.)
  • Danforth, S. (2002, February). New words for new purposes: A challenge for the AAMR. Mental Retardation40(1), 52-55. View PDF
  • Dierks, K., Kelly, R., Matsubara, L., Romero, J. R., & Takahashi, K. (2007). Disability awareness toolkit. View PDF
  • Harbour, W. (2012). Wendy's world | Adventures of a Deaf disability studies professor. Learn More
  • Kuusisto, S. (n.d.). Planet of the blind: It's not as dark as you think. Learn More
  • Liebowitz, C. (2015). I am Disabled: On Identity-First Versus People-First Language. The Body is Not An Apology. Learn More
  • Linton, Simi. (1998). Reassigning meaning. In S. Linton, Claiming Disability: Knowledge and identity (pp. 8-33). New York, NY: New York University Press.
  • Oaks, D. (2012, August 28; latest update when reviewed for this handbook). Let's stop saying "mental illness"!. In Let's stop saying "mental illness"! — MFI PortalLearn More
  • Price, M. (2011). Mad at school: Rhetorics of mental disability and academic life (pp. 19, 196-229). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
  • Shakespeare, T. (2010). The social model of disability. In L. Davis (Ed.), The Disability Studies Reader (3rd ed., pp. 266-273). New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Sinclair, J. (1999). Why I dislike "person first" language. In Autism MythBusters. Learn More
  • The language of disability (2008, April 15). In Diary of a goldfishLearn More
  • Whitaker, R. (2002). Mad In America: Bad science, bad medicine, and the enduring mistreatment of the mentally ill. New York, NY: Perseus  Books.

Other Resources:

  • #NotSpecialNeeds Campaign
  • American Heritage Dictionary Entry: deaf (2012). In The American Heritage Dictionary of the English languageLearn More
  • Baynton, D. C. (1996). Forbidden signs: American culture and the campaign against sign language. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • D/deaf culture. (n.d.). In Living DeafLearn More
  • Folkins, J. (1992, December). Resource on person-first language: The language used to describe individuals with disabilities. In American Speech-Language-Hearing Association PublicationsView PDF
  • The Icarus Project | Navigating the space between brilliance and madness. Learn More
  • Kenney, C. (2010, May 23). For many, use of the r-word hits painfully close to home. In For many, use of the r-word hits painfully close to homeLearn More
  • Kids as Self-Advocates (n.d.) Respectful disability language. Albuquerque, NM. Learn More
  • Shapiro, J. P. (1993). No pity: People with disabilities forging a new civil rights movement. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
  • Special Olympics (n.d.) Special Olympics disability language guidelines. Washington, DC. View PDF
  • Snow, K. (2002-16). The case against "special needs". In www.disabilityisnatural.comLearn More
  • Snow, K. (2010). To ensure inclusion, freedom, and respect for all, it’s time to embrace people first language. In Disability is naturalView PDF
  • Stubblefield, A. (2007). "Beyond the pale": Tainted whiteness, cognitive disability, and eugenic sterilization. Hypatia22(2), 162-181.
  • Understanding disability etiquette. Learn More
  • United States Agency for International Development (USAID). (2007). Language and disability. Washington, DC: Anne Hayes. View PDF
  • Wiener, D. & Zubal-Ruggeri, R. (n.d.). "Cripping" the Comic Con. Learn More
  • Wiener, D. & Zubal-Ruggeri, R. (n.d.). What "Cripping" Means. "Cripping" the Comic Con. Learn More
  • Language Guide created 2012 by DCC Graduate Assistant Alex Umstead. Revised in December 2018 by P. Penner and D. Wiener.


The important definitions come to us from the J. Murray Atkins Library at the University of North Carolina Charlotte

The language guide for disability and accessibility comes to us from Syracuse University's Disability Cultural Center.