Dell Medical School

Inclusive Language Guidelines


Dell Medical School follows the Associated Press Stylebook and house editorial style when creating and editing nontechnical content (editorial content such as social media, email campaigns and website copy). This supplement reflects additional and/or alternate recommendations — commonly used words, phrases, rules and concepts — that reflect the school's commitment to inclusion and advancing equity.

In addition to AP style, these guidelines are informed by:

This guide is not exhaustive. When in doubt, follow AP Stylebook guidance (or Merriam-Webster if AP doesn’t have an entry). The Communications team will update and/or add entries in consultation with the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Health Equity teams as needed.

This guide is also, necessarily, a living document. It will evolve to reflect cultural changes and as we continue to learn how to best use language to advance equity.

The No. 1 rule: If a person specifies an aspect of their identity — such as their sexuality, race or gender — use that identification.

Person-First Language

Person-first language emphasizes the humanity and wholeness of a person rather than their diagnosis, condition or any one characteristic.

Constructions commonly start with the phrase “people with” or “people living with”:

  • People living with depression, not “depressed people”
  • People diagnosed with cancer, not “cancer patients”
  • People with asthma, not “asthmatics”
  • People who use wheelchairs, not “wheelchair-bound people”
  • Older people, not “the elderly”
  • Young people, not “the youth”
  • People experiencing homelessness, not “homeless people”
  • People with low income, not “low-income people”

The idea of using person-first language over identity-first language is debated. Whenever possible, ask the person or entity in question how they would like to be identified. If that’s not possible, default to person-first language, but be prepared to switch to identity-first language if needed.

Relatedly, be careful when designating a group of people with similar characteristics as a “community” when that may not be the case, or they may be composed of several communities grouped together. Just because a group of people share a characteristic does not mean they move through the world in the same way — be sure a community is actually present. Remember there is diversity within diversity.

  • For example, “LGBTQ+ community” is inaccurate. The abbreviation represents several distinct communities whose members experience life and society differently. “LGBTQ+ communities” is more accurate.


Some disability activists and groups prefer identity-first language (“disabled people”), as opposed to person-first language (“people with disabilities”). Always follow a person’s or group’s self-identification. When you cannot ask them or it’s unknown, default to person-first language.

  • Blind” refers to someone with total vision loss. Otherwise, describe the degree of vision loss that is applicable, such as “low vision” or “limited vision.”
  • Deaf” is an adjective, not a noun. Lowercase it in all uses, except if a person explicitly prefers to capitalize it, such as when referring to Deaf communities.
  • Hard of hearing” is acceptable for people who have partial hearing loss.
    • Avoid “hearing-impaired,” as it disempowers (describes someone in terms of what they cannot do) rather than neutrally describes a condition.
  • Avoid describing a person as “handicapped.” Instead, describe the disability.
  • Nondisabled” refers to someone who does not have a disability. Use caution with the term “able-bodied,” as some view it as meaning people with disabilities lack “able bodies.”
  • A person “uses a wheelchair.” Avoid phrases that insinuate a wheelchair is a hindrance, such as “confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair-bound.”

Ethnicity, Place of Origin & Race

While the guidelines altogether are a living document and will evolve to reflect cultural changes, this is particularly true for language regarding ethnicity, place of origin and race. The Communications team continues to monitor research and trends in this space, while also consulting with the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Health Equity teams. These entries in particular will adapt as perspectives on how to best use language to advance equity change.

The general rule is to be as specific as possible.

  • Someone who is Black may not be “African American,” which refers to people of African descent who categorize themselves as from the U.S. Even if they currently live in the U.S., a Black person might be from the Caribbean or Latin America or elsewhere, so they might not consider themselves to be “American.”
  • Africa is the second-largest continent after Asia and contains many different countries. Do not use “Africa” as a catch-all term when the content in question refers to a specific African country.
  • American Indian” and “Native American” are both acceptable terms to refer to Indigenous people in the U.S.
    • Do not use “Indian,” which refers to people from the country of India, as shorthand for American Indian or Native American.
  • Asian” is a broad term that encompasses people from many different nations. Likewise, “Asian American” is a broad term that may not be the most accurate. Use caution and be as specific as possible. Other acceptable and common distinctions can include the following general terms:
    • South Asian” (from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and more);
    • East Asian” (from China, Japan, Hong Kong, North Korea, South Korea and more);
    • Southeast Asian” (from Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and more).
  • Black” as a description of race is always capitalized, as the term refers to a distinct group of people who have shared experiences.
  • Chicano/a/x” refers to people of Mexican descent born in or living in the United States. They identify explicitly as not Hispanic, Latina/o/x, Spanish or European.
  • Dual heritages do not take hyphens: African American, Asian American, etc.
  • Global majority” is an inclusive term used to reflect the demographic majority of the planet: people who are not White. The term simultaneously identifies the reality of the majority population in the globe and recognizes that people of color are not a “minority.”
  • Hawaiian” is an ethnic group — people who are of Polynesian descent — not a term for residency akin to “Texan.” When referring to a person who is not part of the ethnic group but lives in Hawaii, use “islander” or “Hawaii resident.”
  • Hispanic” refers to people who speak Spanish and/or are descended from Spanish-speaking populations (includes all of Latin America except Brazil).
    • Keep in mind that this term carries the connotation of the history of colonization and is sometimes seen as a term that erases the role or existence of Indigenous populations in Spanish-speaking countries outside of Europe. There are many Indigenous people from Spanish-speaking countries who do not identify with Spanish culture and do not speak the dominant language. Therefore, ensure that “Hispanic” truly is the most accurate term for your subject matter.
  • Indigenous” is a term that refers to people who originally inhabited a place. Examples include “Native American” (in the U.S.), “Māori” (in New Zealand), “Aboriginal” (in Australia) and “First Nations” (in Canada). Capitalize “Indigenous” when referring to people.
  • Latina/o/x” is a more inclusive update to “Latinx,“ a gender-neutral term for people of Latin American descent that has seen increased usage in recent years. It can be used in both singular and plural senses. It refers to a person’s ethnicity, origin or ancestry, but not race. A Latina/o/x person can be any race or color.
  • Latin American” is a broad term that refers to people from Mexico, Central America, parts of the West Indies and any countries in South America, including Brazil.
  • Middle Eastern” is a broad term that refers to people from many different nations. Use caution and be as specific as possible.
  • Pacific Islander” is a specific U.S. Census term that refers to people who are Fijian, Guamanian, Hawaiian, Northern Mariana Islander, Palauan, Samoan, Tahitian and Tongan.
  • People of color” is an umbrella term for people who are not White or of European parentage. It is sometimes abbreviated to “POC.” Be specific if you are referring to one racial group.
    • Meanwhile, “BIPOC” is an abbreviation for “Black, Indigenous and people of color.” This abbreviation centers the specific relationships that Black and Indigenous people have to Whiteness in the U.S.
  • Undocumented immigrant” is a neutral term that describes someone’s immigration status. Never use “illegal immigrant” — actions are illegal, people are not.
  • White” as a description of race is not capitalized, as the term does not represent a shared culture and/or history.

Gender Identity & Sex

  • Sex and gender identity are two distinct concepts:
    • Sex” is the classification of a person as male or female based on bodily characteristics, including internal and external reproductive organs, chromosomes and hormones. A person’s sex is also referred to as their “sex assigned at birth.”
    • Gender identity” is a person’s internal sense of gender along a spectrum, a closely held feeling of who they are, which may or may not match their sex assigned at birth.
  • Cisgender” refers to a person whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth. For example, a person whose sex assigned at birth is female and who feels their gender identity is that of a woman is cisgender.
  • Intersex” refers to a person who is born with genitalia, chromosomes or a reproductive system that does not conform to only male or female characteristics.
  • Genderqueer” refers to a person whose gender identity is outside of the gender binary, i.e. is not male or female. Similarly, some people use “nonbinary” to describe their gender identity as neither male nor female.
  • Be sure of someone’s name, especially if a person uses a name that differs from the name they were given at birth. The name they no longer use is known as their “deadname,” and using that name — also known as “deadnaming” someone — rather than their current name can create an environment that makes them feel unsafe.
    • Asking a person how they would like to be addressed or what you should call them is a surefire way to avoid accidentally deadnaming someone or violating their sense of safety. The name that’s on their records may not be the name they go by.
  • Pronouns: Whenever possible, ask someone what their pronouns are.
    • When someone’s gender is not known, use gender-neutral pronouns (they/them/their) or rewrite the sentence to avoid using a pronoun at all.
    • Always use the pronouns that correspond with a person’s gender, regardless of their sex assigned at birth.
    • Pronouns are simply that — pronouns — not “preferred pronouns,” which insinuates that using the pronouns that match a person’s gender is optional.
  • A transgender person’s gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth.
    • “Transgender” is an umbrella term, under which there are other, more specific gender identities and terms — though they are not necessarily synonyms for the term “transgender.”
    • “Transgender” is an adjective, not a noun.
      • Never use “transgenders,” “a transgender,” etc.
      • Never use “transgendered,” which causes grammatical issues and confusion.
    • Trans” is OK on subsequent references.
  • Use “transition,” not “sex change,” “pre-operative,” “post-operative,” etc.
    • Not all transgender people undergo medical procedures or changes in physical appearance — an identity is not dependent on those factors.
  • Two spirit” is a gender that refers to a Native American person who has both masculine and feminine spirits.

Gender-Conscious Terminology

Be aware of common phrases or terminology that can reinforce harmful stereotypes and adjust accordingly.

Avoid terms such as “opposite sex,” “both genders,” etc., as the numeration reinforces the idea that there are only two sexes or two genders. These terms exclude people who are intersex and people whose gender is neither male nor female. Terms like these are common and are easily replaced by inclusive terms such as “other sex,” “other genders,” etc.

When speaking in a general context (i.e., not about a specific person), avoid defaulting to pronouns or terminology that refers to men exclusively. Gender-neutral, inclusive equivalents usually exist. This is especially important when referring to positions of power. Use “chairperson” instead of “chairman,” for instance, as the latter reinforces the belief that men are more inherently suited to a position of power such as chairing a department.

General Health Topics

  • Battle language such as “lost their battle with cancer” or “fighting cancer” in relation to health issues should be avoided, as it implies that life is a fight to be won, people who die from a disease did not fight hard enough to survive or only the “strong” will live.
  • Stigmatizing language should be avoided. These phrases may be as obviously offensive as “falls on deaf ears” or as subtly commonplace as saying “crazy” when you mean “wild” or “schizophrenic” when you mean vacillating between decisions. Look closely at your writing to ensure it does not contain any hidden epithets or stereotypes.
    • Reconsider the actual or perceived origins of common phrases, such as “lowest on the totem pole”; “master” to mean “head” or “primary” (“master list,” “master contract,” “master key”); “rule of thumb”; etc.
  • Victim language should be avoided. This includes not just calling someone a victim but also phrases such as “afflicted with,” “struggles with,” etc. “Lives with [issue]” or “has [issue]” is preferred.

Mental Health

  • Addiction” and “substance use disorder” are both acceptable and may depend on the context — the former is more recognizable to a nonmedical audience, for example.
  • “Addict,” “alcoholic,” “abuser” and other terms that define a person solely by their addiction should be avoided. Use person-first terms such as “people with a heroin addiction” instead.
  • Died by suicide” or “killed themselves” is preferable to “committed suicide,” as “committed” can imply that the person did something illegal.
    • Relatedly, do not describe suicide attempts as “successful,” “unsuccessful” or “failed,” which are value judgments rather than neutral descriptions of a situation.
  • Avoid terms such as “mentally ill,” which can insinuate that someone’s mental illness makes up the entirety of their mental state or that because they have a mental illness they are not “mentally healthy.” A person can have a mental illness such as depression and still be mentally healthy. Instead, specify the illness or use a phrase like “living with mental illness.”

Sexual Orientation

  • The term “gay” typically — but not exclusively — refers to men who are attracted to other men. While the term “lesbian” generally describes women who are attracted to other women, some women prefer to describe themselves as “gay,” as the latter is commonly used to refer to both. When possible, ask the person what term they use.
  • LGBTQ+” is an umbrella term that is an abbreviation for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer,” with the plus sign acknowledging additional sexual orientations and/or genders.
  • LGBTQ+ communities” is preferable to “LGBTQ community.” The abbreviation encompasses many distinct communities, rather than one monolithic community.
  • Be as specific as possible as to which community the topic affects. Issues that affect the gay community may not affect transgender people, etc.
  • Some people use terms other than lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer to describe their sexual orientation. For example, “pansexual” typically describes someone who’s attracted to people regardless of their sex, gender identity or gender expression.
    • The term “pansexual” can be related to — but is not the same as — the term “bisexual,” which typically describes someone who is attracted to two or more genders.
  • Queer” originated as a pejorative term for gay people, but in recent years, some people in LGBTQ+ communities have begun to reclaim the term as self-affirming. Despite that shift, the term “queer” is still offensive to many people. Be careful when using this term as an umbrella term for LGBTQ+.