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Ableist Language in Code: Sanity Check

Ableist Language in Code: Sanity Check

Removing ableist language in code is important; it helps to create and maintain an environment that welcomes all developers of all backgrounds, while emphasizing that we as developers select the most articulate, precise, descriptive language we can rather than relying on metaphors. Quite simply, avoiding ableist language lets us make sure we are inclusive of all developers, while moving toward language that is simultaneously more acccessible to developers whose first language might not be our own.

The phrase sanity check is ableist, and unnecessarily references mental health in our code bases. It denotes that people with mental illnesses are inferior, wrong, or incorrect, and the phrase sanity continues to be used by employers and other individuals to discriminate against these people.

There are a ton of alternatives, and one of the best ways to select one is to ask yourself: What am I actually checking? and select something more descriptive. In everyday conversation, we can simply drop the idiom completely and say something akin to Let's check to ensure everything is working.

If this doesn't help, consider one of these many alternatives. I'm prone to using the first two in my own code, though these are gleaned from many developers:

  • Quick check
  • Initial check
  • Confidence check
  • Coherence check
  • Soundness check
  • Calibration check
  • Rationality check

One to avoid? Health check. Along with again tieing in discussions of health and disability, this phrase already carries a lot of previous implications from other products that may obfuscate what you're actually trying to say.

@arichards-unity

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@arichards-unity arichards-unity commented Nov 13, 2019

I think Rationality Check is a great alternative, thanks!

@pelevesque

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@pelevesque pelevesque commented Jul 5, 2020

sanity check -> cleanliness check
sanitizer -> cleanitizer or cleaner

@paulirish

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@paulirish paulirish commented Aug 7, 2020

I've been using "Gut check" also, though admittedly it's a bit more vernacular

@richvle

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@richvle richvle commented Oct 7, 2020

I asked my wife to do a "sanity check" on a procedure I was doing the other day. She's doesn't know what that is, and thought I said "Sandy Check" because our friend Sandy (another software engineer) sometimes help me to check my work as well. So to avoid using ableist language, how about something that sounds like what we are familiar with, so it can easily be replace. And it has an easy story behind it.... like..... Sandy Check. I've submitted it to Urban Dictionary already and if it gets more regular usage, I can get it submitted to the Webster and Oxford dictionaries.

@micseydel

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@micseydel micseydel commented Nov 21, 2020

Thank you for sharing this!

@dkadish

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@dkadish dkadish commented Dec 3, 2020

Thanks for this! Just what I was looking for. Appreciate all of the alternative options!

@micseydel

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@micseydel micseydel commented Dec 3, 2020

Came across this later - "reality check" I think can be good too.

@seanmhanson

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@seanmhanson seanmhanson commented Dec 3, 2020

Came across this later - "reality check" I think can be good too.

@micseydel
This one I'll weigh in on. I'm close to some folks who experience hallucinations, and "reality check" is a rough phrase, since it comes from alienating people with Bipolar I mania, Schizoaffective, Schizophrenia, Narcolepsy, etc. I am totally grateful for the comment, because this one totally evaded my radar, and I am pretty sure when I wrote this gist, I was pretty unaware of these associations. Thanks for bringing it up! I may edit it into the original when I'm not on mobile, if that's okay!

@kaitlingee

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@kaitlingee kaitlingee commented Dec 3, 2020

I strongly advise against "Reality check", "Sanity check", and any variation of or play on "sanity/reality check" as it does, as @seanmhanson acknowledges, ostracize a population of people diagnosed with a real brain disease that, when untreated as is often the case, attacks their sense of reality/sanity through audio and visual hallucinations. I say this as someone who is close to an individual diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, which is just one example of a more severe subset of mental illness known as "serious mental illness".

It's great to see this thread coming back to life as folks become increasingly mindful of the language being used in everyday speech. Thank you for keeping the conversation going.

@kaitlingee

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@kaitlingee kaitlingee commented Dec 3, 2020

@richvle - I applaud you for taking initiative to submit a new entry in effort to get a new term to catch on, however I'm afraid this risks more harm and confusion than intended.

"Sandy check" is more likely than not problematic for two reasons:

  1. Most notably, it is a wordplay on the already problematic term "Sanity Check". A newer term with roots in a problematic term remains problematic. See my above comment and do let me know if you have questions!
  2. It's forcibly anecdotal. "Sandy check" is derived from a single individual's experience in having a "Sandy" to check their work, but it would be presumptuous to think that rest of the industry knows someone named "Sandy" to check their work, so it's more difficult for others to relate to.
  3. Lastly, because it sounds so close to "Sanity check", others who hear or rather, mis-hear "sandy check" are more likely to use, "sanity check," one of the problematic term from which we're trying to move away.

Would you be willing to remove the "Sandy check" entry from urbandictionary and anywhere else where it may have been published?

Thank you again for your efforts to help make the industry a more inclusive one!

@micseydel

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@micseydel micseydel commented Dec 12, 2020

@SeanHanson my thinking was that "reality check" would be nicer than "rationality check" because the first is checking in with something external, whereas the second one I would think would be more stressful for someone who is struggling with their internal stuff. Why would the latter be preferred? (Thanks for creating this by the way! I definitely want to learn what is best for folks.)

@gerardmarquina

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@gerardmarquina gerardmarquina commented Dec 19, 2020

Coherence check is a perfect replacement for when "sanity check" would be used for unit testing. I also thought about "Assertion check" but that becomes confusing with languages that have an "assert" feature.

@lychaxo

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@lychaxo lychaxo commented Apr 7, 2021

I'm going to say I actually really dislike "coherence check." As someone who has seen the inside of a mental facility, I've heard nurses and doctors say "patient not coherent" more times in my life than I care for. I've heard it way more, as a mental health patient, than language about "sanity."

Soundness or consistency check can be pretty good as an easy substitution. I know someone people have said "consistency check" feels like something more sophisticated and shouldn't be used for quick checks that don't actually ensure data is consistent -- gut check might be good for that, as suggested above. Or, just be more specific: parameter check, bounds check or bounds check, string check, value check, etc. "Validity check" is a maybe -- I'm not sure if individuals who are not able-bodied or need an aide for common tasks still get called "invalids" or not (I used to hear it as a geriatric medical term a lot, but I'm not sure if there are negative connotations for the patients and their families.)

@pelevesque

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@pelevesque pelevesque commented Apr 7, 2021

reliability check or stability check?

@calittle

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@calittle calittle commented Apr 14, 2021

+1 for confidence check. As in, I'm confident that this bit of code will actually wo--whoops, never mind.

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@ShadezTP ShadezTP commented Jun 5, 2021

Hey, look. I'm gonna say this once. I Hallucinate, I have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Not once have I, or anyone else I know with similar mental illness within my profession, had any qualms with the phrase "sanity check". Seriously, look up the word "sanity". Please don't baby people, please don't single people out so you can white knight them so you feel all good an warm inside. You are part of a problem.

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@seanmhanson seanmhanson commented Jun 11, 2021

Please don't baby people, please don't single people out so you can white knight them so you feel all good an warm inside. You are part of a problem.

I'm glad this isn't an issue that impacts you negatively, and wish I could say the same for so many people I've met! For many years I've been a trained facilitator in a major support group program here in NYC and help out also with risk assessment and harm reduction, especially with folks who haven't yet been able to find therapy and/or psychiatry. Our collective diagnoses span depression, bipolar disorders, OCD, PTSD, psychosis, schizophrenia/schizoaffective, dissociative identity disorder, depersonalization-derealization disorder, eating disorders, and more, and I live with a handful of these myself that at times skew my perception of reality and have made it hard to find acceptance in engineering communities, especially amongst open-source.

All that is to say, no white knighting intended. This gist was originally written after the topic came up over, and over, and over amongst the communities I am in, across working in D&I in several companies, in online communities of disabled and chronically ill software engineers, at conferences and through giving talks, and often alongside examination of other terminology like "Blacklist/Whitelist", "Master/Slave", etc., that is outdated and harmful to marginalized folks trying to find a place in tech. As a result, I'm not inclined to remove this or the perspectives folks are posting as comments, as it's also meant to amplify all those people and events that caused me to post this. You're welcome to ignore it though, or encourage other ways to help address concerns like these.

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