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Gender-Neutral Language

By Dev Neu, They/Them | He/Him


COTAD Board Member


Language is one of the most powerful tools that any person wields. We communicate in various mediums throughout the day, whether it’s verbally or nonverbally. What is gendered language? Well, it’s the use of words or phrases that have the binary gender attached to them. Examples include but are not limited to: He, She, Mom, Dad. This language has the influence of the binary – man and woman. However, the binary does not represent everyone. This is where gender-neutral language comes in! Gender-neutral language includes the use of words, terms, or phrases that exist without the influence of the gender binary. Examples include but are not limited to: They, Parent, Partner, Spouse, and even y’all. This language does not exclude transgender, gender non-conforming, or any gender-diverse individuals.

You may not be aware of it, but you may be the problem. Gendered language is used frequently, almost without a second thought. It is the model that is presented to us from womb to tomb, with gender reveal parties and gendered bathrooms influencing our lives before we’ve even started living them. Medical charts and intake forms are usually one of the first places we gather information about the people we’ll be working with. In case you missed it, you can check out the last blog post I wrote about Inclusive Intake Forms. We look at the medical chart or intake form, see an M or F, and have already planned the language we’re going to use with that person. Stop. Each time that you do that, whether it be during your role as a healthcare professional or just as a human, you are actively excluding someone and are setting yourself up with the potential to harm someone. It’s so easy to language that includes everyone and gives each individual the opportunity to share with you the language that is best for them.

So, what can you do? Well, I already did some of the work for you below. It’s your turn to tackle the next steps. Sift through your repertoire of language that you use in your screens, assessments, evaluations, and interventions and have fun with one of those trendy “ditch and switch” moments. You could even get really freaky and ask your patients, “I see _____ as your name on your chart, is this how you would like to be referred to or is there a better name to use?”, or even, “Hi, my name is Dev, my pronouns are he/him/his and they/them/theirs, both are best to use, and I’ll be your OT today! How would you like me to refer to you?” By sharing who you are and leaving open space for someone to share whatever they feel comfortable sharing with you, you chip away at the power dynamic that is created in provider/client relationships and shifts the power to the client. Your therapeutic relationship will strengthen as they identify you as a safe and trustworthy figure. It’s so simple but think before you speak. You’ve spent so many years creating language shortcuts and assumptions in your head, you can expect to make a mistake and maybe use the wrong language or accidentally misgender someone. Fail forward, correct your language, be mindful of the language that you use, and before you know it you will be leading with neutral language.

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