By choice or by chance, many jobs involve conscious language, such as writing, copyediting, parenting, teaching, managing, training, customer service, marketing, negotiation, persuasion, counseling, law, and meditation. In our “Conscious Language at Work” Q&A series, we spotlight people in our community who use language mindfully to support and enhance the work they do.
Ashley Bischoff is an accessibility analyst and copy editor. She’s got a knack for taming technical and business writing, and she’s an advocate for plain language—she relishes any chance to comb corporate-speak into everyday language. Among her other hats, Ashley also works with The Paciello Group where she helps companies make their websites more accessible to people with disabilities. She is also a freelance editor, at Friendly Editing. Ashley lives in Dallas, and she likes listening to metal and drinking tea.
What role does conscious language play in your profession?
In one of the hats that I wear, I work with companies to help them make their websites more accessible to people with disabilities. While wearing another hat, I help authors get their message across in their writing. So whether I may be writing a report or editing a chapter of a book, I keep conscious language in mind to help show readers the respect that they deserve.
What are your main goals with using conscious language?
I want to be respectful to people, but I also want to try to lessen the stigmas that many people face. One way I do that is by making an effort to use person-first language when I refer to people with disabilities. So, for example, rather than hypothetically saying that someone is “a schizophrenic,” I’d say that they’re “someone with schizophrenia” (if I even had to mention their mental illness at all). Because to call them “a schizophrenic” would be to define that person by their disability.
I want to be respectful to people, but I also want to try to lessen the stigmas that many people face.
How did it come about, and how do you feel about it?
The Wikipedia page for people-first language cites its use as far back as 1988. But it would seem that the credit for its origins have been lost to the sands of time.
I think I first came across the idea of people-first language in an article some years ago that had mentioned it. When I read about it, I thought to myself, “Oh, of course—this is what we should’ve been using the whole time.”
How much flexibility do you have with the terminology you use?
I have a fair bit of discretion when I write reports about accessibility—but it’d be counterproductive if I were to use language that was anything less than inclusive. Because to do so could mean insulting the very groups that we’re trying to help.
What specific terminology is challenging, and why?
I’ll admit that ableist language sometimes trips me up now and again. Ableist language is an umbrella term for words that devalue people who may have physical or mental disabilities. For instance, if someone were to say “That video game is lame” to mean “That video game is useless,” that also subtly reinforces the idea that those with walking-related disabilities are “useless.”
Or if someone were to get off a roller coaster and say “That ride was crazy!” to mean that the ride was erratic or unpredictable, that tends to reinforce the notion that people with mental illness—that is, people who are “crazy”—are erratic or unpredictable.
When trying to be mindful of ableist language, one of the things that makes it challenging is that it’s so pervasive in our culture—and many people don’t realize that it’s a thing. And some people, even if they may have heard of the concept, may still be tempted to brush aside its concerns with responses like “I didn’t mean crazy in that way—it’s not as if I have anything against mental illness.” And yet I can’t help noticing the parallels to decades-past usage of words like gay, which people of that time used to use quite freely to denigrate nearly anything while often accompanying it with justifications like “I didn’t mean gay in that way—I have nothing against gays.”
Words that denigrate in one usage invariably leach those connotations into their other usages.
Words that denigrate in one usage invariably leach those connotations into their other usages. Our collective realization of that helped push gay (as a pejorative) out of fashion. And I hope that we can get there with ableist language too.
What are the consequences, if any, of not using language mindfully? Tell us about some cases from personal experience.
Ableist language has done a remarkable job of maintaining our society’s stigma toward mental health. People with mental illness rarely talk openly about it, lest it come off as some sort of “personal failing.” And many people with mental illness wouldn’t dare mention it to their boss out of concerns that that might hold back their advancement at work.
Think about how perverse that is: If we were instead talking about someone who had strep throat or someone who had broken their arm, I’d like to think that most people in those situations wouldn’t hesitate to tell their coworkers about those things if they were so inclined. And yet mental illness continues to be thought of as somehow different from physical issues.
Do you see a common thread between plain language and accessibility?
As far as I’m concerned, plain language is accessibility. Plain language helps make writing more approachable and more understandable. And from a making-the-world-a-little-better point of view, I think plain language is right up there with other facets of accessibility.
Take, for example, a standard hospital. You can bet that they have things like wheelchair-accessible ramps, shower handrails, and Braille signage. But suppose that someone were to go to that hospital for surgery—when they’re handed a consent form, how readable do you think that’s going to be? If it’s anything like the material that I’ve received from health providers, it’s probably going to be an impenetrable swath of gobbledygook. And who does that serve?
We may try to see the best doctors and get the best care, but how are we to stay on top of our health if its gatekeepers won’t talk to us like real people? And it’s not just the field of healthcare that does that. How many times could someone have been better informed about their mortgage payments if only the fine print on their statement made sense to everyday people? And when was the last time you got a letter from your bank that was anywhere near as readable as a letter from your Aunt Judy?
There’s something to be said for holding companies to plain language like we do any other corporate social responsibility.
Whether through laziness or malice or the old standby of “We’ve always done it this way,” businesses cling to tangled language as if it were a treasured amulet. But corporate-speak serves no one, and it’s more than a mere nuisance—when it comes to things like our health and our finances, corporate-speak’s twisty maze of passages betray our best interests. So I think there’s something to be said for holding companies to plain language like we do any other corporate social responsibility—and if we can do that, we’ll be better off for it.
What resources do you recommend for those wanting to learn more?
On the plain-language side of things, PlainLanguage.gov has a rather handy table of stuffy words along with simpler alternatives that you can use instead. (For instance, you might go with start rather than commence. Or before rather than prior to.) If you might be interested in a book with some plain-language tidbits, I can vouch for Garner’s Modern American Usage, particularly the entries on formal words and buried verbs.
And there are heaps of great resources on the web about accessibility—if I had to pick one, I might toss out WebAIM’s “Introduction to Web Accessibility.” Or if you might like to dive into a book, I can heartily recommend A Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences.
Quote or motto that you live by?
Measure twice, cut once. (It sort of kills me that the canonical version of the phrase has a comma splice in there, but I try not to fret about that too much seeing as though both phrases are pretty short, which often seems grounds for leniency when it comes to comma splices.)
Anything else you would like readers to know?
You should follow @consciousstyles on Twitter if you aren’t already—Karen really knows her stuff!