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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: How to Find the Right Words

Graphic illustration featuring three people sitting at a round table having a discussion. The people are drawn in color -- one wearing a yellow shirt with light skin and two others wearing blue shirts with darker skin. There are two bookshelves on the wall behind them, and a lamp that hangs overhead. All other illustration details are in grayscale.

Read time: 8 minutes

Last month, we published a blog post describing how web accessibility is ultimately about inclusion. Anyone should use your website, regardless of ability or identity. 

The purpose of web accessibility is to eliminate barriers to access and use, creating an equitable online environment.

Our lead designer, Bud Northern, also shared more than 15 resources to help you discover photos, graphics, icons, and other visual elements that represent a diverse spectrum of race, age, ability, identity, and gender.

Today, I’m diving deeper into how to find the right words for your online content in order to ensure it’s as accessible and inclusive as possible.

A quick note: Neither I nor Unity are experts on DEI language. We try our best to be thoughtful and intentional with our words, and we’re continuously learning! To supplement the recommendations below, I’ve curated a list of resources developed by DEI experts, which you can find at the bottom of this post.

Web Accessibility + SEO = A Perfect Match

It’s the day after Valentine’s Day, so I couldn’t resist a nod to relationships. When it comes to SEO, Google loves accessibility.

A recent study conducted by Accessibility Checker analyzed the organic traffic of 847 web domains before and after implementing accessibility updates to the sites. Their analysis showed a 12% average increase in organic traffic for all domains, with more than half the domains experiencing an increase up to 50%!

Here’s why: An accessible website is easy to navigate and to use because content is structured in a way that supports all visitors. When a site is easy to use, people tend to stick around, which increases page dwell time and lowers bounce rate – two stats Google uses to rank websites.

So what does this have to do with finding the right words?

Well, you can’t have an accessible website without accessible language. Here are four ways to make your website copy more accessible:

  • Target a 6th to 8th grade reading level.
  • Make your paragraphs easier to read with fewer sentences, appropriate subheadings, and bulleted or numbered lists.
  • Use abbreviations sparingly.
  • Avoid jargon, slang, and unfamiliar words.

(Also, check out these helpful SEO tips by Search Engine Journal.)

A graphic illustration of two men and one woman walking up a set of stairs. The man highest on the stairs wears yellow pants, brown shoes, and a long-sleeved blue shirt and holds a life-size pencil. He is drawing the staircase as he walks. The woman behind him wears blue pants, blue shoes, and a yellow long-sleeved shirt. She extends her right arm to the man behind her, who holds it as he climbs the stairs. That man wears dark brown pants, yellow shoes, and a blue short-sleeved shirt.

How to Write with a DEI Mindset

When writing text for your website or other digital publications, it’s important to consider your word choice carefully. 

We’re all human, and we have unconscious or implicit biases that can affect how we speak to and about others.

There are a few things we can do to ensure bias doesn’t creep into the content we create.

Unconscious bias, or implicit association/bias, refers to unintentional or automatic mental associations an individual has. Unconscious bias operates outside of a person’s awareness and may not directly correlate with their beliefs and values. Unconscious bias is expressed indirectly since it seeps into a person’s attitudes and behaviors, causing an individual to make assumptions based on limited information to fill in gaps and make decisions.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

Avoid making assumptions

If you’re unsure about a particular piece of information, a best practice is to research it or rephrase it

For example, let’s say you manage an economic development foundation, and you’re writing text to describe a partnership your organization has with local universities to develop a talent pipeline through semester-long internships.

One goal of this partnership is to intentionally support first-generation college students.

Don’t assume the students who participate in the internship program want to be known or recognized as a first-generation college student, especially if there are pictures of students on the website. 

Perhaps you could rephrase your description to avoid using the term “first-generation” – something like, “Our goal is to serve students who may not have personal business connections or easy access to a professional network.” 

This indicates your commitment to serving a certain population of students without specifically targeting first-generation students.

Do a quick internet search for reputable sources on the topic to test your assumptions. (For the example above, I referenced The Center for First-Generation Student Success, which led me to an article about internship guidance for first-generation students.)

Be as specific as possible

It can be tempting to generalize when referring to people or cultures because generalities sometimes feel more inclusive.

By lumping people together who don’t share the same identities, we can unintentionally exclude or offend members of our community.

Here’s an example from the American Heart Association’s Structural Racism and Health Equity Language Guide:

BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other people of color) is a term emphasizing the historic and systemic oppression of Black and Indigenous people in the U.S. and Canada. Avoid using this as a general term for people of color because Latino people may not see themselves in this phrase. It can be used when accurate in specific situations.

(I learned something new today!)

Question colloquialisms

You know those words and phrases that come to mind easily because you’ve heard people say them since you were a kid?

Phrases like black sheep to describe someone whose behavior doesn’t conform to a set of norms, white knuckling to describe holding on tightly, grandfathered in to describe access to benefits, or lame to describe something that’s boring.

Each of the above examples (there are many, many more) contributes to marginalization – treating a person or group of people as insignificant.

It’s not that people don’t stop and think about the impact their words have on others, it’s just that language is very deeply ingrained. It reflects our families, friends, cultures, and identity.

Allilsa Fernandez for Harvard Business Review

Before using jargon, slang, or common phrases in your writing, ask whether or not the terms could be hurtful to someone who reads them.

In most cases, you can get your point across without them. The simpler, the better!

Graphic illustration featuring three people sitting at a round table having a discussion. The people are drawn in color -- one wearing a yellow shirt with light skin and two others wearing blue shirts with darker skin. There are two bookshelves on the wall behind them, and a lamp that hangs overhead. All other illustration details are in grayscale.

DEI Language Guides

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