a black background on which is written "what's your real name?" "You don't even have an accent" with the word Microagression is bold white letters

I was recently asked to be interviewed about microaggression and inclusive language. Before I agreed, I had to look up the term microaggression. According to the Psychology Today blog microaggressions are “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership”.

The first things that sprang to mind were the obvious; that’s so gay, this is lame or the ‘r’ word. The more I started to think about it, the more I thought of the subtle ways in which my position as an attendant for people with multiple impairments acts as conduit of microaggressions. Often people will come up to me when I am working for someone, ignore them completely and tell me I “have a place in heaven,’ that I ‘must be a saint’ or that ‘isn’t it nice that I take them out.’ Or I am often asked if the person I am with is my son or brother. The implications of this language, the microaggressions, are that those with disabilities are not worth even talking to, that only family members would want to spend time with them, that disabled people require non disabled people to ‘take them out’ and that people who work for disabled people must be exceptional people.

These comments would not have been happened (I am sure they would have still be unconscious thoughts) if not for my position as non disabled attendant. I have talked to the men I work for to understand how they would like to me to respond as they have communication impairments. However, there never really seems to be a good way to deal with these comments. At least, not one that makes the situation worse.

I also wonder if using the term microaggression, is in itself a microaggression. Isn’t it jargon? Shouldn’t we try to avoid jargon? Don’t we want to write in plain language? If we want to talk about inclusive language shouldn’t we then talk in a plain language format?

Sadly, my initial delight that someone not only read my blog but wanted to interview me about language was crushed by a lack of fact checking and misquotations. But at least it got me thinking about microaggressions. I wonder if perhaps we aren’t creating a new and varied jargon to further obscure concepts like ableism, racism, sexism, ageism, etc.

Discrimination is one thing, but microaggression leaves too much up for interpretation.

The Ivory Tower of Academia


My inner critic has been loud of late. “This presentation isn’t good enough, you should have done more readings, you are going to submit that?” It’s easy to let my mind run away with itself. Only coming back to myself as I run screaming through the woods of my mind.

I intellectually understand that my work is not meant to be the same as others. That different does not equate with worse. That just because I don’t use ‘praxis’ doesn’t mean I don’t do it. There are so many things I love about academia. I love learning. I love sharing what I have learned. I love writing. I don’t love the comparison that can sometimes accompany it. I don’t love the way academia can obscure and complicate ideas. I don’t love the exclusion.

When I first entered university several years ago, I had dreams of enlightenment and learning for the sake of learning. This is sadly, not what the university system produces. The system is focussed on producing regregetators not thinkers. I am lucky to be a program that values critical thinking but balancing that with the overwhelming pressure to be ‘academic’ is, well, overwhelming.

So what can be done about this? I can continue to try to write in plain language and to try to make what I am learning accessible. I understand that language matters. That academic jargon can fit in with academic work which is sometimes useful but I want to move beyond this. I love what I have been learning about research, about ways to enhance and challenge what we understand as knowledge. But if I cannot share this with a non academic audience, then what’s the point? I don’t want to be involved in creating knowledge which can’t be accessed. Despite what some academics might think plain language is not dumbing down your work. Plain language doesn’t make your research soft. It adds value. If academia is to survive and encourage people to learn for the sake of learning, not just a well paying job, then we need to ditch the jargon and overly complicated phrases.

It seems so lonely in the academic ivory tower. I feel like an outsider. I want to invite others in. There is safety in numbers.

From Academic Privilege to Plain Language


This morning I submitted the last of my assignments.  I am currently enrolled in the Disability Studies Program.  One would think in a program designed to deepen an understanding of the social construction of disability it would be easier to write in plain language.  It isn’t.

I recently overheard someone say that plain language is ‘dumbing’ down your writing style.  This is exactly what it isn’t.  Plain language should be about checking our academic privilege at the door and writing in a manner which will make it clear to everyone.  It isn’t about accommodating people labelled with intellectual disabilities or learning difficulties: it’s about writing so that everyone; child, adult, disabled, non disabled, educated, under educated can understand.

In the disability studies program we are asked to think about the levels of privilege, power and oppression that we all deal with.  Using plain language is a way to remove one more layer of oppression.  Let me show you what I mean.  I am privileged.  I have had the financial ability to pursue a university degree, the socioeconomic background to attend good schools, my parents had stable employment and were able to be home to help with school work when I was younger, and being a Canadian citizen whose first language is English made it easier for me to excel in educational programs designed for native English speakers.  All of these factors are layers of privilege.  I didn’t earn these privileges.  I was born with them.  They aren’t something that I should regret or feel ashamed of.  I should think about how I use them though.  Using plain language (or attempting to) is a way for me to avoid using my level of privilege in a way which might oppress someone else.

This is much more difficult than it sounds and it of course depends on your audience.  Essays I submit for my classes tend to be more formal and involve a more complicated writing style and structure, blog post less so.  I do think it is possible to write about complicated themes in plain language.  In fact, I think it is better to do so.  I find that by really getting to the heart of the issue, not only do I understand it better, but I can explain it more clearly.  I get wordy and complicated when I don’t really understand what I am writing.

The world we are living in relies more and more on the written word; text messages, facebook updates, blog posts, emails, google searches and more.  Think how much it would benefit you and everyone else if plain language was used more often.

To learn more about plain language, check out the following websites.

Center for Plain Language


Government of Canada’s Translation Bureau


Central Alberta Self Advocates Plain Language Society