Usability and accessibility » Language

Sebastian Greger This is a living document
Last update:

Choosing appropriate language can play an important role in an inclusive design. Using language that is easy to understand, avoiding ableism, addressing disability and being gender-inclusive are complex topics and there is not always a straightforward cover-all solution.

The big picture

Addressing diversity in language is not limited to gender or disability – there are cultural factors at play in general. While looking at specific details is often needed, there are some good efforts to conceptualize the need for inclusiveness in general:

This article by Sophie Clifton-Tucker presents a whole range of considerations how to better consider varying cultural norms in design. It illustrates the difference between internationalization (i18n) as a “pre-launch” design phase task, and the “post-launch” localization (l10n), but most importantly provides an even broader perspective in calling for culturally aware design.

Simple language

The most established discipline when it comes to inclusive language is the field of “simple language” (“Einfache Sprache” in German); it is even currently being standardized as an EN norm.

Norm für Leichte Sprache entsteht

Gendered language

Chosing gender-inclusive language has a two-fold accessibility/usability impact to be considered: the readability of the text itself (on a content level) and the technical accessibility (ensuring the chosen style does not interfere with assistive technologies).

Empirical studies

There is not a whole lot of empirical studies on this topic, which makes these even more valuable – these are currently all on German language specifically (where this is a more challenging task due to the grammar being based on genus):

A rare gem: an observational study validating the comprehensibility of five different forms of gender-neutral German text.


Technical accessibility

As soon as diversification of language is achieved by adding non-standard elements to texts (such as adding additional colons, asterisks, underscores etc.), their proper representation in digital markup is of crucial importance for accessibility. Some solutions are easier to deal with than others.

Gendern und Barrierefreiheit

Some publications help to grasp and evaluate how certain styles of gender-inclusive language affect users of assistive technology:

Guides and tools

Some resources aim to assist with writing more inclusively:

Political debate

Last but not least, “gendered language” – its necessity, reasoning, as well as its forms – is often subject of heated debate. Some interesting positions:

Non-ableist language and addressing disability

Addressing disability

Even when trying to do it right, it is not always easy to choose the appropriate words to speak about disability without offense.