Opening the table: Representing everyone in dialogue

April 3, 2016 By Mia Chism Conferences

PORTLAND, Oregon — “I’m not going to give you a list of words that you should or shouldn’t use.”

This is how Sarah Grey, editor/owner of Grey Editing LLC, started the first half of Saturday’s session, “What’s the Word? Inclusive Languages for Gender, Race and Disabilities.”

Grey discussed how language changes gradually, but as social justice movements occur, the changes in language happen more quickly. Grey mentioned how the term “gay” has changed since the beginning of the gay rights movement.

“What started out as a gay rights movement has expanded out to include lesbian, bisexual, transgender, asexual and the whole range of people,” Grey said. “It’s still expanding. And I think that’s the beauty and dynamism in language.”

In relation, Grey said that politics and language play off one another.

“They’re always catching up with one another. One pushes and the other pulls.” she said. “Our job as editors, I think, is to help language catch up.”

Grey discussed how editors are the language professionals, and we “get to look at the words before they go out in the world.” But with this job comes the responsibility of making sure the language is not offensive to people, that it is not exclusive to one race or one gender.

She noted, though, that writers need to know they’re pushing buttons. “Editors need to know that the writers are being intentional with the words they are choosing,” she said.

Grey included six tools to help use inclusive language.


  1. General and specialized style guides
  2. Your own style sheets
  3. Engaging with groups and communities
  4. Respectful questioning of reporters
  5. Expert advice
  6. Mistakes (Making mistakes if OK, if handled properly.)

Grey concluded her portion of the session with: “Bottom line: If you’re only editing words on the page, you’re not being thorough. I think we also have to edit what’s in between the lines.”

Takeaways from Grey:

Sitting beside Grey, Ashley Bischoff of Friendly Editing, spoke during the second half of session about ableist language.

“What is ableist language?” Bischoff asked the audience, only to immediately answer that it refers to “words and phrases that denigrate people with disabilities.”

Bischoff told the audience five words that should be replaced in language because they can “denigrate people with disabilities.” Retarded. Crazy. Lame. Insane. Derp.

She continued on by saying that some of these words are used in everyday language and may not always seem offensive to everyone, but can be to people with disabilities.

Bischoff suggested that instead of saying, “Nickleback is so lame,” replace it with “Nickleback is insipid.”

She said that even the usage of “gay” in the context of “That party was so gay,” isn’t acceptable, and one shouldn’t be playing it off as “Well, I didn’t mean ‘gay’ that way.”

Bischoff said, “What we have intended doesn’t really matter. Because the power of words lies in how they’re received.”

She suggested to try on alternatives, as with the Nickleback example above. Bischoff referenced Lydia Brown for alternative phrasing and words to use.

Bischoff also tackled the stigmas associated with mental illnesses, and she even mentioned her own. “If we can talk to people about our mental illnesses, we can take away its novelty,” she said.

Takeaways from Bischoff:


Want more from Sarah Grey? Follow her on Twitter at @GreyEditing

Want more from Ashley Bischoff ? Follow her on Twitter at @FriendlyAshley

Bischoff’s “Sidestepping Ableist Language” slides are also online.


ACES newsroom member Mia Chism is a student at the University of Oklahoma.

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