Words Are Power- Using Language to Empower and Uplift Voices

Author: Dani Esterline


Language is a force that guides communication and understanding, and the way we use words is powerful. For local governments, the need for powerful language is essential to build trust in a community. Thought leaders recognize that the constituents they serve come from many different backgrounds, cultures, and identities. Being aware of the correct language for individuals' identities will empower local governments and the constituents that they serve. Not to mention, using incorrect language can harm community morale and damage an organization’s presence, and in some cases can be irreparable. 

We are going to dive into the power of building inclusion through language, by covering words to help meet a broader audience. Let’s begin with some basic principles of inclusive language.

The table below is provided by the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs. (This page also provides in-depth terminology for inclusive language and will be referenced throughout the blog.

Social identities are important and people first language is a step in the right direction to reaching broader audiences. We’re going to go into terms to avoid and suggested alternatives from credible resources. 

Disability Status

The following table is provided by the American Psychological Association.

Term to avoid

Suggested alternative


Use of person-first and identity-first language rather than condescending terms

special needs

physically challenged

mentally challenged

mentally retarded


person with a disabled

person who has a disability

disabled person

people with intellectual disabilities

child with a congenital disability

child with a birth impairment

physically disabled person

person with a physical disability

Use person-first or identity-first language as is appropriate for the community or person being discussed. The language used should be selected with the understanding that disabled people’s expressed preferences regarding identification supersede matters of style. Avoid terms that are condescending or patronizing.

mentally ill

person with a mental disorder

person with a mental illness

person living with a mental health condition


Description of Deaf or hard-of-hearing people

person with deafness

person who is deaf

Deaf person

Most Deaf or Deaf-Blind individuals culturally prefer to be called Deaf or DeafBlind (capitalized) rather than “hearing-impaired,” “people with hearing loss,” and so forth.

hearing-impaired person

person who is hearing impaired

person with hearing loss

hard-of-hearing person

person who is hard-of-hearing


person with deafness and blindness

Deaf-Blind person


Description of blind people and people who are visually impaired

person with blindness

visually challenged person

sight-challenged person

blind person

person who is blind

visually impaired person

vision-impaired person

person who is visually impaired

person who is vision impaired


Use of pictorial metaphors, negativistic terms, and slurs

wheelchair-bound person

wheelchair user

person in a wheelchair

Avoid language that uses pictorial metaphors, negativistic terms that imply restriction, and slurs that insult or disparage a particular group. As with other diverse groups, insiders in disability culture may use these terms with one another; it is not appropriate for an outsider (nondisabled person) to use these terms.

AIDS victim

person with AIDS


brain damaged

person with a traumatic brain injury




person with a physical disability





person with a mental disorder

person with a mental illness

person living with a mental illness



person with alcohol use disorder


meth addict

person with substance use disorder


When writing content for local government affairs, avoiding some of these insensitive words and replacing them with the suggested alternatives will create a more inclusive environment.

“As we strive to further infuse principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) into the fabric of society, those committed to effecting change must acknowledge language as a powerful tool that can draw us closer together or drive us further apart.” (Maysa Akbar, PhD, ABPP Chief Diversity Officer”

Race and Ethnicity

The U.S. in itself is a multicultural melting pot and using the correct terminology when referring to groups of people can uplift voices in the community. Understanding language can create an environment of respect and understanding.  Let’s go into some broader terms that can help us navigate language when referring to people. 

Race-  “Race is a categorization that is based mainly on physical attributes or traits, assigning people to a specific race simply by having similar appearances or skin color (for example, Black or White).” (The Law Society)

Ethnicity- “Ethnicity is broader than race and has usually been used to refer to long shared cultural experiences, religious practices, traditions, ancestry, language, dialect or national origins (for example, African-Caribbean, Indian, Irish).” (The Law Society)

The Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs contains a glossary of terms to reference when creating an inclusive environment.

Here are some language substitutions offered by The Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs, consider these substitutions when preparing content for your organization:

More inclusive: Folks, people, you all, y’all, teammates, friends, family, community members

Less inclusive: Guys (or women) when referring to people overall

More inclusive: Workforce, personnel, workers, team

Less inclusive: Manpower, man hours

More inclusive: Chairperson, chair, moderator, discussion leader, councilmember

Less inclusive: Chairman, foreman, councilman

More inclusive: Marginalized groups, systemically minoritized groups,  underrepresented groups, or underserved groups

Less inclusive: Minorities (Not all marginalized groups are minorities in all areas. For example, there is an over-representation of people of color in the criminal justice system.

There are so many layers that derive from language and communication, and words matter. Language helps uplift and empower voices- and words that lead with kindness, compassion, and empathy can change the world (and it can start with local government). 





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