An inclusive classroom climate refers to an environment where all students feel supported intellectually and academically, and are extended a sense of belonging in the classroom regardless of identity, learning preferences, or education. Such environments are sustained when instructors and students work together for thoughtfulness, respect, and academic excellence, and are key to encouraging the academic success of all students. Research indicates that many students may be more likely to prosper academically in settings with more collaborative modes of learning that acknowledge students’ personal experiences (Kaplan and Miller 2007).

Changing the environment starts by accepting and enjoying the individual identities of the children.  Language, culture, and identity are inextricably linked. Language is not simply a way to communicate. Language tells us who we are, where we belong, what we believe. Without language, no culture can exist. Our language is our identity. This is why the language we use matters. Language has the power to offer us validation and belonging, and it has the power to deny us both. We need to be aware of the impact our words have. We need to ensure we use language that is inclusive and validating for everyone.

We have all seen pictures or films where our inner voices are portrayed as an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, telling the person what to do and who they are. One says ‘you are okay, you can do this’ and the other one says ‘you are terrible. You have no idea what you are doing. Who are you trying to fool?’. These two beings, the devil and the angel, are formed from the people around you, internalised forever and very difficult to change. The way we talk to children, the language we use around them and about them, forms the being they become, forges their identity and forges their inner voice. Which voice is stronger depends on which was used more and which was given more energy.

Often people use excluding language out of habit. ‘Hey guys’ or ‘mankind’ excludes anyone who is not male. The use of (s)he, trying to be inclusive of both men and women, misses the point of gender identity. Someone may not identify with either or with both.

A Turkish friend once made a comment about the phrase ‘Turkish family’ being used derogatorily by a mutual acquaintance. I have often heard it said that ‘I am not racist, but…’ A large majority of us have been normalised to this type of language, have internalised it, and do not see the pain it causes. By using language that is not inclusive, we exclude people, we ‘other’ them. They don’t belong.

I am sure I am not the only one who gets offended by the statistics questions on forms. The most logical option for me is ‘white’ but that does not reflect who I am. I was born in the Netherlands to parents who are Dutch, Friesian, Jewish, and some other Mediterranean that was never quite clear. I mostly identify with being European. Many of us do not fit into neat categories or do not wish to identify with a specific category, whether ethnic or cultural background, gender, or any other category.

A good friend tells me that when she meets someone for the first time, she often gets the standard questions. The first one is ‘what is your name?’, the second one is ‘Where are you from?’ and when she replies to this question that she is from London, they ask her ‘No, I mean originally.’ If she plays dumb and replies that she was born in London, they get flustered. And yet these people are unlikely to think they are racist. They would be horrified to think they came across as such.

The word ‘disability’ is problematic because of what it implies. It conveys a disease that needs to be cured, a problem that needs fixing, whereas so-called disabled people often don’t feel they are impaired. They feel differently abled, not dis-abled.

Language is not just a collection of words but it conveys an identity, a way to connect to family, friends, and society. Language links to culture, to music, to your beliefs, and to what you consider wisdom. Language carries the culture in its stories, its artefacts, its customs, and its celebrations. Our language is our identity. When your identity is described negatively, as a problem, an impairment, that negative identity fixes itself in you. You become a problem, a negative, an impairment in your mind. The language we use around the ‘other’ can insidiously undermine that person’s confidence, their self-esteem, and their sense of identity.

Affirming and supporting people as they are, and celebrating their differentness, is as important or more important than putting accommodations in place to support their learning. Using inclusive language lies at the heart of a much needed revolution in the way we behave in society, the way we operate schools, the way we teach. Inclusivity within the language we speak is as important as any other inclusivity.

The neurodiversity movement is one way in which we are consciously evolving our language to be more inclusive. The neurodiversity movement is a discussion about brain wiring, in which we talk about the idea of ‘normal’. Were you aware that it has only been ‘normal’ to communicate through literacy for about 150 years? Can you imagine how different the world would have been for dyslexic people? The concept of ‘normal’ is often seen as a narrow band in which the ones in the middle are acceptable and the ones outside the band are unacceptable and ‘weird.’ In reality the bell curve of normality is much wider than most people recognise. Being autistic, being ADHD, being dyslexic, etc all fits into the ‘normal’ or average bell curve.

Many people are unsure what language to use that is acceptable, whether it is to do with ethnicity, gender, sexuality, neurodiversity or disability. Learning the language of these cultures is as enriching as learning any other language and at first most likely feels just as normal. It is important to recognise that language evolves and so this document is a snapshot of 2021. In a few years much of this may have changed, may have evolved. We often find it difficult to have conversations about differences, ethnicity, gender, and discrimination because we are afraid of saying something that offends. And yet, all of us wish to be understood and accepted. In order for that to happen, discussions need to be had. We all need to get better at talking about race, about gender, about neurodiversity, about human nature. Open conversations where you express true curiosity and a wish to understand, to communicate, to empathise are meaningful go all parties concerned. Understanding a person’s or group’s struggles is an important part of forming human connections.

Anita Hempenius