Writing sensitively about people

We write the same way in all AHS materials: using a person-first perspective. At all times, it’s important to write for and about other people in a way that’s respectful and inclusive. This is a critical element in projecting our values through our site.

Age

Avoid including a person’s age unless it’s relevant to your content. When including age, always report it in numeral form.

If age is central to your story, come right out with it: “At the age of 16, Mary was the youngest student ever accepted to our program.”

If age is relevant but not central to your story, set it off by commas: “John, 68, took over the program after retiring from his first career.”

Avoid using age-related descriptors like “young,” “old” or “elderly.”

Disability

Avoid referencing a person’s disability unless it’s relevant to your content. If you must mention it, use language that emphasizes the disability as one facet of the person: “Jane has a disability,” rather than “Jane is disabled.” (Note: There is disagreement in the disability community about this approach; however, we will not have the opportunity on our site to illuminate the debate, and so we default to the approach that is less controversial.)

Do not use words that can be construed as condescending, e.g., “Joe suffers from multiple sclerosis.” Above all, do not construct narratives that say or imply a person with disabilities is “inspirational” (or any variation on that notion) for doing everyday things.

Avoid “handicapped.”

Gender and sexuality

College-age and older females are women. Do not refer to them as “girls.”

When addressing or referencing groups of people, say “everyone” or “all” rather than “ladies and gentlemen” or “men and women.”

Avoid gendered terms in favor of neutral alternatives, like “server” instead of “waitress” and “businessperson” instead of “businessman.”

The following words are acceptable as modifiers, but not as nouns:

  • gay
  • bisexual
  • transgender
  • trans
  • LGBTQQAI+

Don’t use these words in reference to LGBTQQAI+ people or communities:

  • homosexual
  • lifestyle
  • preference

Many people do use the word “queer” as a reclaimed identity label. This word should not be used without permission as some still find it highly offensive.

When writing about a person, be mindful of what pronoun you’re using. If you’re uncertain, ask the person, or just use their name.

When writing about a transgender/trans person, use the name and pronoun they currently use, even when discussing the person before they began transitioning. Using a trans person’s given/legal name or assigned pronouns is never appropriate.

Talking about any marriage, use “marriage.” Don’t use “same-sex marriage” unless the distinction is relevant to your content. Never use “gay marriage.”

For more information, check out GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide.

Mental health

While “mental illness” is an acceptable term, do not describe a person as “mentally ill.”

Mental illness is a disability, so use the same rules as writing about people with disabilities, emphasizing the person first.

As everyone reading this already knows: Mental illness and intellectual disability are not the same, and the latter must never be referred to as “mental retardation.”

The term “mental health burdens” may be used as a replacement for “mental health illnesses.”