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Rural Health Information Hub

Using Inclusive, Non-Stigmatizing Language to Better Communicate about Health Equity

In defining health equity, rural communities may consider examining the language they use to describe populations that experience inequities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer Resources & Style Guides for Framing Health Equity & Avoiding Stigmatizing Language that provide important considerations for communicating with a health equity lens.

The guiding principle of using inclusive, non-stigmatizing language is centering the person, instead of their condition or circumstances. Some common examples include:

  • People with disabilities, instead of disabled people
  • People who are incarcerated, instead of inmates or felons
  • People with diabetes, instead of diabetics
  • People from [specific] racial and ethnic groups, instead of minorities
  • Pregnant people, instead of pregnant women

Using plain language can also help make communications accessible to multiple audiences. The Rural Health Literacy Toolkit provides additional information about plain language.

Implementation Considerations

Rural communities should also be aware of the intricacies of translating non-stigmatizing and bias-free language. Some terms and acronyms that make sense in English may be difficult to communicate in other languages. Words and phrases that may be considered bias-free in English may have different connotations when translated. Rural communities should consider different strategies to translate materials and communications into languages spoken by communities that experience inequities. These include translation and testing by members of the community, like community health workers or professional translators. One health system used a three-step process to minimize stigmatizing language for a culturally responsive mobile app:

  • Assembling a research team with the appropriate subject matter and cultural expertise
  • Identifying text and graphics in the tool that may have cultural or social relevance to populations that experience inequities
  • Reviewing and changing the tool in an iterative process

Questions for Consideration

  • Are we being consistent in how we refer to health equity and communities that experience inequities?
  • Are we using accurate and specific terms when we talk about populations that experience inequities?
  • Is our language clear and understandable?
  • Are we using language that minimizes bias and stigma?

Resources to Learn More

Equity Language Guide
Lists terms appropriate when discussing health disparities focused on equity and racial equity. Offers cited definitions and examples of usage.
Organization(s): Washington State Governor's Interagency Council on Health Disparities
Date: 12/2018

Everyday Words for Public Health Communication
Everyday Words for Public Health Communication offers expert recommendations from CDC's Health Literacy Council and other agency communicators on how to reduce jargon and improve reader understanding.
Organization(s): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

GLAAD Media Reference Guide: 11th Edition
Provides guidelines for using accurate and inclusive language when reporting on LGBTQ issues to public audiences and identifies offensive and derogatory language to avoid.
Organization(s): GLAAD

Health Equity Terms
Assists with the understanding and use of common terms that are appropriate when discussing health equity. Provides links to documents and resources to learn more.
Organization(s): Vermont Department of Health
Date: 2019

National CLAS Standards
Offers information about the National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services (CLAS) in Health and Health Care. The standards are intended to help healthcare organizations achieve health equity.
Organization(s): Office of Minority Health, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

Structural Racism and Health Equity Language Guide
Offers guidance to help understand and appropriately use language when discussing health equity concerning race, ethnicity, and social determinants of health. Includes suggestions for terms to avoid.
Organization(s): The American Heart Association (AHA)
Date: 5/2021