A court ADR program’s communications – including how outreach is conducted and the language that is used – can make important contributions to whether a program is seen as diverse, equitable, inclusive and accessible. The following recommendations are ideas that court ADR programs seeking to improve their DEI efforts may want to consider.
Messaging About the Program
Good dispute system design often overlaps with principles of DEI. One example of this occurs in the outreach (or messaging) to parties that makes them aware of the program and educates them about it. Programs should ensure that their message is accessible and welcoming to all. This might mean, for example, providing information in ways that can be accessed by people with disabilities or in multiple languages.
ADR program staff can start by looking at each touchpoint with the parties, e.g., website, clerk’s office, e-filing platform, summons, brochures, and other tools such as postcards, phone calls and text messages. Then they can consider how accessible those communications are and how they may be perceived; for example, whether videos include subtitles or downloadable text, photos reflect the diversity of the parties, screen readers can capture whatever is on the website, brochures are printed in languages most used by parties, and fonts and colors are accessible so that all parties can read them easily.
Court ADR staff can seek input on these communication tools. For example, the DEI Committee can provide feedback or program staff might informally ask parties in mediation waiting rooms to give feedback on draft text for communications.
Using Inclusive Language
Programs may want to consider the language used in any communications with program participants. In any writing, an ADR program’s main goal is to communicate clearly. One way to avoid some barriers to clarity is to use inclusive language. The Guidelines for Inclusive Language, published by the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), defines inclusive language as language that “acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences, and promotes equal opportunities.”
The following are some tips about using inclusive language.
Accessibility Inclusive Language
About 1 in 4 US adults – 61 million Americans - live with a disability. When choosing inclusive terminology, court ADR programs can use person-first language, which is language that puts a person before their diagnosis or situation and describes a person’s disability without defining that person by their disability. For example, when assisting participants who have disabilities, program staff would use terms such as “people who are blind” or “person who uses a wheelchair” instead of “the blind” or “wheelchair bound.”
Race and Ethnicity Inclusive Language
Another continuing challenge for many court ADR programs is what terms to use for racial and ethnic groups when, for example, reporting on who the program serves. The goal of racially and ethnically inclusive language is to use clear, recognizable terms that do not make people feel excluded or otherwise diminished. Consulting a DEI Committee or a stakeholder group can help the program use terminology that is inclusive.
Programs that ask participants for this information may need to use categories specified by their courts or particular funders. Sometimes programs may want to refine their categories depending on the make-up of their jurisdiction.
As the American Psychological Association (APA) notes in their Racial and Ethnic Identity Guide, “terms used to refer to racial and ethnic groups continue to change over time,” so courts should regularly review and update the terms they use.
Gender Inclusive Language
ADR programs looking to be more welcoming might want to shift to gender-inclusive language. The United Nations defines gender-inclusive language as “language that does not discriminate against a particular sex, social gender or gender identity, and does not perpetuate gender stereotypes.” For example, a family mediation program seeking to implement inclusive language might change the wording on its forms from Boyfriend/Girlfriend to Significant Other or Partner, or consider changing Husband/Wife to Spouse.
Additionally, with increasing gender diversity in society, a court ADR program might want to be flexible in the gender pronouns it uses. If someone working in a court ADR program is referring to an individual whose identified pronouns are not known they might use the singular “they” to avoid making assumptions about an individual’s gender or they might ask an individual which gender pronouns they identify with, i.e., she/her/hers; he/him/his; or they/them/theirs.
Inclusive Language Regarding Communities
When a court ADR program serves litigants and communities that are thinly-resourced, finding inclusive wording can be a challenge. In this situation, a court program may choose to use phrases such as “neighborhoods with high poverty rates” instead of “the poor” or “under-resourced communities” instead of “the inner city.”
Additional Resources to Explore Inclusive Language Further
APA Bias-Free Language Guide: Compiled by the APA, this guide provides instruction on how to use bias-free language and write and speak inclusively with respect to age, gender, racial and ethnic identity, and socioeconomic status.
- Gender-Inclusive Language Guide: Compiled by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, this guide provides information and examples on how gender-inclusive language can be used with varied audiences.