That old schoolyard taunt claiming that “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? It’s wrong. Words can hurt. They can exclude, marginalize, trivialize, erase … or they can include and empower.

Clear, accessible language says what the writer means in unambiguous terms. Accessible eLearning avoids clichés and cultural references that might exclude some learners. It also avoids stereotypes that could exclude or harm some learners. Examples of bias and stereotyping abound:

  • Voluminous paperwork is a feature of many onboarding processes, and these forms often collect demographic information—and provide insight into the company’s culture. Are employees asked to choose between binary gender options and narrowly defined ethnic categories? Does the company holiday schedule recognize only Christian holidays? Intake documents are employees’ first contact with the corporate culture; new hires can feel marginalized and “other” before they’ve even met their co-workers.
  • Examine eLearning for gender bias. Are examples in your eLearning written with male pronouns? Are the “executive” characters all white men? In simulations, does a female avatar make coffee or clear the table at the end of a meeting?

Some ways that eLearning reflects assumptions about learners are less obvious:

  • Does eLearning assume familiarity with technology? Do examples allude to Pokémon or Game of Thrones? Is the eLearning program built on an expectation that all learners are eager to jump into a competition to earn points, badges, and “bragging rights” for “beating” their colleagues?
    Instead: Ensure that introverts, tech newbies, and people of all ages and social styles can access and engage with eLearning.
  • Does eLearning have a heavy reliance on sports metaphors that may turn off learners who are not interested in sports? Remember, sports jargon can be incomprehensible to learners who never played the sport or who grew up in a part of the world where, say, baseball is not part of the culture.
    Instead: Look for metaphors that are likely to have broad cultural recognition for your predicted learners.
  • Whose images appear on your eLearning screens and in simulations? Do your graphics present a mix of individuals? Do any of them have visible disabilities?
    Instead: Get in the habit of presenting diverse characters performing all levels and types of work.
  • Do eLearning personas—including the names selected—reflect stereotypes about learners’ age, gender, ethnicity, or education level? Are details about family life, such as number of children, provided for female personas but not for male personas?
    Instead: Ensure that personas reflect real people—and the variety of preferences, experiences, and backgrounds that members of your community bring to the company.

Language is an accessibility issue, and it is one that goes far beyond learners with disabilities or limited English or literacy skills. And “plain” or clear language is only partially about the number of syllables in a word or the length and structure of sentences. Research on standardized testing, for example, finds that unfamiliar names or concepts slow down test-takers; it adds to their cognitive load, reducing the energy they have available to devote to the actual task or learning.

Empower and engage with words

The power of words—the power of precise, accurate, inclusive word choices—drives the Conscious Style Guide. The website includes links to several style guides, each addressing a different area where word choice can help or harm, welcome or exclude. Style guides exist for writing about disability, age, gender, ethnicity, health, and more. Articles address topics as disparate and universal as using disempowering language in everyday speech, the way unconscious biases and stereotypes creep into our daily conversations, the ways word use has changed, and choosing words to handle conflict, resolve disagreements, or diplomatically turn down requests.

A linked article in the empowerment section, for example, offers tips for providing positive feedback that encourages future stellar performance, rather than offering perfunctory “good job”–type praise. Another offers language that reframes choices and options in ways that let employees take more ownership or control of their work and decisions.

The website also features several links to resources and articles on plain language, a topic that Learning Solutions Magazine and The eLearning Guild have addressed in coverage of accessible content. Some tips found here could be useful to eLearning creators, as well as to anyone writing a business memo or email. (Take a look at this list of simple words and phrases for an example.)

Examining eLearning and ensuring that it has universal design, accessible features—and inclusive language—can add up to an engaging experience for all learners.