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Inclusive Language: Best Practices for Movement Instruction

Language is one of the most powerful tools we have. We use it on a daily basis to communicate with others and ourselves, to work, to create, and to build relationships. Unfortunately, language can be harmful, even if we do not recognize it as such. For example, in the article Creating Inclusive Physical Activity Spaces: The Case of Body-Positive Yoga (Pickett & Cuninghmam, 2017), the author highlights the idea that language “can either stigmatize or empower individuals [especially] in a fitness setting” (p. 334). A lot of common language within physical activity creates a hierarchy of bodies or ability that leads to the exclusion of certain bodies (Pickett & Cunnigham, 2017). For example, when you say things like “if you need to modify,” “full expression of the pose,” or “beginners follow this, experts follow this” it evokes the idea of being less than or not capable. In the above article, one of the yoga teachers mentions that she used to say “full expression of the move” to her yoga class participants. One day, it was brought to her attention that when she used that phrasing, the people who could not do the “full” movement felt defeated (Pickett & Cunnigham, 2017). She made a slight change in her language and now she says “your expression of the move” to include everyone in her classes. In addition, another dance instructor discussed the idea that she uses imagination within her classes. Instead of telling her students to “copy me” or “do this pose,” she allows her students to use their imagination to complete the poses. For example, she would tell her students to move like a cat, allowing her students to interpret what that movement meant to them. This is a simple way of including all bodies into your classroom because every student has the opportunity to explore what works best for them (Pickett & Cunnigham, 2017).

Creating a space of inclusion for every student to participate is done through the use of language. There are times when you can be specific in the language and directions you give and other times when you need to be less specific and allow students to interpret what it means to them. In your classroom, if you know for certain that every single student can clap, stretch their arms up high, or wiggle their toes, then you can be specific in your directions. If you have a student in your class that has a physical disability and they are unable to get down on the floor, then your instructions will be less specific. Instead of asking your students to move low on the floor, you would ask students to move low. They could interpret this by moving low on the floor, moving low from a seated position in a chair, crouching down, or moving a body part down low such as toes or arms. There are many ways that you can demonstrate low movement without having to physically get down on the floor. Other prompts that you need to consider when giving instructions to your students include: rolling on the floor, asking everyone to stand, moving quickly, jumping up and down, moving from low to high, and so forth.

Another key point within language is the concept of “person-first language”. Person-first language encourages us to see the person first before anything else. Their disability is one part of them, not their entire identity (Collier, 2012). This idea is not suggesting that we look past a person’s disability or that being “human” requires you to not have a disability. Instead, disability is still an important part of a person and their needs. However, we must look at the whole person. Yes, they might be a person in a wheelchair; but they might also be kind, empathetic, charismatic, funny, and so forth. We need to look at the person holistically and address their whole person, not just their disability. Kathie Snow (n.d.) states, “disability is a natural part of human experience” and we need to think of it as another human trait, just like gender or race (as cited in Collier, 2012, p. 2). Some examples of person-first language would be a “person with a disability” rather than a “disabled person” or “person with autism” rather than “autistic person”. These changes are about providing respect and dignity to people with disabilities (Collier, 2012). 

Language is unique to you and the programming that you are implementing with your students. Therefore, there is no set of common words you need to use to ensure that your language is inclusive of all bodies, movements, and abilities. Follow this LINK to find some easy changes that you can implement or tailor for your own style. 

This “blog” is an excerpt from the resource Including All Bodies in Movement by Taylor Simpson. You can download it HERE by visiting our shop. 

Want to know more about creating inclusive movement experiences for your students? WATCH the latest Body Talk “Ep10: Best Practices for Including All Bodies in Movement” (published on October 14, 2020) with Dr. Traci L. Scheepstra and Taylor Simpson. 

Guest Writer: Taylor Simpson is a second year Teacher Candidate at Western University’s Faculty of Education. Taylor also attended King’s University College at Western for her four-year undergraduate degree, double majoring in sociology and French literature and language, with a minor in Disability Studies. Growing up, Taylor was very athletic, taking part in school sports and extracurriculars outside of school such as ringette, soccer, basketball, and volleyball. Over the last three years, Taylor has immersed herself into the world of musical theatre with her role as Inclusion Coordinator and Program Director at a local youth theatre company. She has taken on the opportunity to bring equitable and inclusive practices into this arts context by using her passion and knowledge of this area. Taylor feels that her relationship with Embodied Learnings is a natural extension to her interests and research. She looks forward to seeing the organization grow and flourish.  


Collier, R. (2012). Person-first language: What it means to be a "person". Canadian Medical 

Association Journal, 184(18), E935-9366.

Pickett, A. C., & Cunningham, G. B. (2017) Creating inclusive physical activity spaces: The case of body-positive yoga. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, (88)3, 329-338.

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