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What’s in a word? The power of transformative language

Published: 25.09.2023
Jess Blijkers International Director, Programmes and Advocacy
Light for the World

Are you sometimes worried about using the right words to describe a place or group of people? Or annoyed that what is considered the “correct” language seems to continually change?

Do you ever feel the language used by people around you is, at best dated, at worst offensive to or excluding of certain groups? Do you ever feel offended yourself by the language people around you use?

In our efforts as a sector to be as inclusive as possible, and to present eye health as a developmental issue beyond health, the words we use are important. As debates around decolonisation and anti-racism continue to gain momentum, we cannot ignore the power of language.

Many members have their own language guides and principles. Light for the World recently developed a language guide on Decolonisation and Anti-Racism in addition to existing guides on disability and gender.

We wanted to share with other members some of the simple guiding principles we have adopted and examples of inclusive language. This is not because we have all the answers – we know we don’t! But we do believe, by sharing learnings within our sector, we can collectively do better.

The principles shaping our language transformation journey within Light for the World are:

  1. We are all on an imperfect, learning journey. Changing our language and, especially, challenging some of the preconceptions behind the words we use is going to be uncomfortable. For this to work, we need to take a learning mindset. We need to treat ourselves and others with kindness and curiosity and look for progress, not perfection!
  2. Use people-centred language. You can’t really go wrong if you remember to put the humanity back in the words you use. For example, avoid “the blind” or “the disabled”, and instead use “blind people”, “people with disabilities”. If you are not sure how the people you are talking about like to be described, ask them!
  3. People are not defined by the situations in which they find themselves. Respect human dignity by showing people are actors of their own lives, not passive victims, and that circumstances can change. For example, avoid “poor people” in favour of “people living in poverty”, “people who have been excluded / underrepresented” or “underserved communities”.
  4. Be as specific as possible, avoid generalisations. For example, refer to the specific country or context. Avoid just saying “Africa”, as you are talking about a continent of very diverse countries and cultures!
  5. Resist language that implies a binary “us and them” way of thinking. For example, avoid Global North/South, West/Rest, Developing / Developed countries. Refer to the specific context (as we said in point four) or use language that shows a breadth (e.g. “lower income countries”).
  6. Resist patronising language that implies superiority. For example, “capacity building” implies that there was a void of capacity before the “experts” arrived. It undermines the existing agency or capability of those we work alongside. Try and use terms like “capacity strengthening” and “sharing learning and knowledge”.

Are there any principles missing you find important? Do you see these principles applied in your organisation? Which ones do you personally find harder to follow?

I once heard someone say: “what has this all got to do with us?”. I know there are some sceptics out there, who would argue that with everything we have to do in our roles as eye health experts, do we really have time to worry about language?

The answer is yes, because as a sector we aim to be inclusive and respectful as we can. That means challenging our language and our perceptions that hide behind the words. To use the words of William Gibson that especially we should understand, “Language is to the mind more than light is to the eye”.

For more information about the power of inclusive language, we recommend the language guides from Oxfam, Bond and Sightsavers, this article from Inclusive Futures, as well as the recent book by Dipo Faloyin Africa Is Not A Country.

If you are interested in Light for the World’s language guides please check them out here. If you have feedback for us, or learnings from your own organisation that you would be willing to share, please email my colleague Robert Kidd, Light for the World’s Global Editor and Advisor, at [email protected].

Image on top: In a crowded room, two people who are standing are in focus, a smiling woman on the left holding a mic, a man on the right is handing to her/Copyright by Kevin Gitonga/Light for the World