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Making German accessible and gender sensitive - impossible?

One of our most popular inputs revolves around inclusive language: How can I communicate in a way that makes as many people as possible feel included and respected? The topic also comes up in workshops frequently, with participants asking questions about gender sensitive language, “good” and “bad” words, or accessible communication. Which makes sense - we have to communicate with each other, and it’s important to address others correctly and with respect, especially in our work lives. 



Gender sensitive language in German 


One of the main points of contention when it comes to inclusive language in German is gender sensitive language. Every word in German has a grammatical gender, and when it comes to groups of people, the gender defaulted to is usually male. That this so-called generic masculine subtly (and not so subtly) excludes women and gender minorities has been exhaustively proven, but making German more gender inclusive can be tricky. One of the most common strategies is using a sign such as an asterisk or colon to include both male and female forms, with the sign symbolizing all other genders: “der*die Mitarbeiter*in” instead of “der Mitarbeiter oder die Mitarbeiterin”.


Another one is to use more neutral phrasings instead, for example using participles (“Mitarbeitende”) or rephrasing around neutral terms like “person” (“Person, die hier arbeitet”). Also common, though not inclusive of all genders, is simply using both male and female terms “Mitarbeiterinnen und Mitarbeiter”). However, there are no universal rules for gender sensitive language so far.


Eine Person, die nicht weiß, wie man richtig gendert.
German is a very gendered language, however there are work-arounds that are inclusive to all.

Making German accessible and gender sensitive


While many arguments against gender sensitive language revolve around a conservative view of language evolution and can be easily disproved, one valid question remains: Isn’t using gender sensitive language inaccessible to people with disabilities? The answer is a little more complicated than a simple “yes”. In fact, with a little bit of consideration, even German can be made both gender sensitive and accessible to people with disabilities.


Making gender sensitive language accessible to blind people


A major concern when it comes to blind or visually impaired people is that screen readers, which many rely on to access written communication, may interpret gender signs such as the asterisk incorrectly. This can manifest as overly long pauses, reading the name of the sign out loud, and other problems. If another person reads for them instead, they might not be familiar with gender signs and unsure about how to pronounce them. (Namely, as a very short pause in place of the sign, similar to compound nouns.) However, that also means: Making language more gender sensitive by using neutral terms is not an issue at all. And as screen readers become increasingly customisable and gender sensitive language becomes more common, gender signs will become increasingly accessible to blind people as well.



Gender sensitive language for people with cognitive disabilities


Things get a little more complicated when it comes to people with cognitive disabilities. Conventional wisdom dictates that in order to make language accessible to them, any non-standard grammar, including gender signs, must be avoided under any circumstances. In fact, the official German standard for accessible language, the so-called “Leichte Sprache”, is a highly standardized way of breaking language down to very simple parts, and generally relies on the generic masculine. 


However, newer research shows that gender sensitive language is not per se inaccessible. Using an asterisk to create inclusive nouns is easy to understand for most people even on a very low language level, particularly if it’s explained or they have encountered them before. Many neutral phrases (such as “Es haben 10 Menschen teilgenommen” instead of “Es gab 10 Teilnehmer”, where “Teilnehmer” is generically masculine) or using both the regular male and female forms also don’t pose a problem. Interestingly, however, using participles to create a neutral form, which is generally considered more accessible, has proven to be harder to understand than using the asterisk.


Some practical tips for accessible and gender sensitive German


So to sum it up, it is absolutely possible to use German in a way that’s both gender sensitive and accessible.


  • Ideally, use simple neutral forms, avoiding participles. They are accessible to just about everyone.

  • Otherwise, use the asterisk to make nouns gender inclusive. If used sparingly, it’s accessible to the vast majority of people. However, try to avoid using it outside of nouns, such as “der*die” or “sein*ihr” - these can be harder to understand for people with cognitive disabilities.

  • Avoid using a colon instead of an asterisk. The colon has been popularized in recent years as a supposedly more accessible alternative, however the opposite is true. Due to its existing role as punctuation mark, it can cause problems both when using screen readers and when being read by a person, who might be confused by the nonstandard use.

  • If all else fails, using both male and female forms is still better than the generic masculine and accessible to everyone.


And last, but not least: remember that this is not a case of “either - or”. Women, nonbinary and intersex people with disabilities exist and deserve to be included and addressed respectfully in every way.


Sources (in German):

Deutscher Blinden- und Sehbehindertenverband e.V.: Gendern. https://www.dbsv.org/gendern.html (zuletzt abgerufen 25.6.2024)


Ebner, Christopher (2023): Leicht verständliche Sprache genderfair! Studie zur Verwendung genderfairer Sprache in Leicht verständlicher Sprache. https://www.capito.eu/app/uploads/genderstudie-2023-vollversion.pdf (zuletzt abgerufen 25.6.2024)

Lieb, Sigi: Barrierefrei gendern: Was soll ich beachten? https://www.genderleicht.de/barrierefrei-gendern-was-soll-ich-beachten/ (zuletzt abgerufen 25.6.2024)


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