Alphabet Soup: Agencies and Acronyms

By: Julia Wolhandler

What are Acronyms: An acronym is a type of abbreviation or a shortened version word made up of the first letters of each word in a phrase or name. For example, DIY comes from Do It Yourself.  

Why do we use them: Acronyms provide a simplified and quick way to refer to titles, organizations, companies, laws and long structured sentences. You may use them in e-mails, academic papers, research, and other writings to avoid the use of long titles and words. Acronyms are a part of our everyday use. We hear and see them used all the time. Common acronyms that you might use in your daily life without giving a second thought to it could include BRB (Be Right Back), IDK (I Don’t Know), ASAP (As Soon As Possible).

Do all acronyms mean the same thing: No. It’s important to keep in mind that not all acronyms come from the same words.  One acronym does not always refer to the same thing, and it is important to note that depending on the setting and the people you are with, the acronyms being used could refer back to completely different things. It is always wise to showcase the word you are referring to and then give its acronym and vice versa. 

While working for both the Federal and local government, acronyms were thrown around me thanks to its efficiency. It became a common joke because of the amount of acronyms we used. In fact, it was so frequent it was in some ways its own language, a secret coded language, if you will. We were trained on the importance of differentiating acronyms and their meanings and after two years I became fluent in what I would consider a language of its own. 

In the disability community we have several acronyms that we often throw around and assume are common language both internally and externally. A well-known and widely used acronym in the disability community is the ADA also known as the Americans with Disabilities Act. As a Disability Rights Advocate, the ADA always means the Americans with Disabilities Act, to me. Those are the only words that, tried and true, come to my mind when I hear the acronym ADA. However, for someone like my mom who is a dentist, the ADA means something entirely different. For her the ADA is the American Dental Association. It is important for me to keep this in mind that although ADA is as common to me as my first name it may not be as commonly used or mean the same thing to someone else. Keep this in mind whenever using acronyms and be sure to state the entire word just to ensure that everyone is on the same page as far as what you are referring to. 

I quickly learned that while I may be fluent in certain acronyms, using them without context and providing the actual word alongside its acronym can cause the feeling of alienation to my peers and others. Oftentimes, when we are not privy to the same information we can feel less than, out of the know, and frustrated. For this reason, it is really important to clarify what you are referring to, always, and to not make the assumption that others know the word you are referring to when using an acronym. 

Let’s take this a step further. Say you are working on recruiting a donor for your organization, you want the donor to feel engaged with you and fully understanding of the information you are relaying to them. For that reason, you would not want to make the donor feel alienated because you are using acronyms that they are not privy to.   

Tips on properly using acronyms:

As a Board Member, you will eventually pick up and become fluent in the specific “acronym language” being used, but to get there, here are a few tips:

  • Do ask! Don’t be afraid to ask what the meaning is behind each acronym so that you start off with the proper words behind each letter.
  • Write it down. Some agencies will have a list of common acronyms they use but if they don’t, start writing them down and reviewing them aloud in your own time. 
  • Create an acronym reference list, others on your Board might find these helpful as well.
  • Always state the words prior to using its acronym. This too goes for writing.
    • Write out the words/name first, then place the acronyms in parenthesis or brackets. After doing this, you may continue to use only the acronym as you write. 
  • If you know definitely that everyone around you knows what an acronym stands for then you do not need to give the words behind it. For example, if you are on the Board for the American Association of People with Disabilities, instead of saying the entire name you would just use the acronym every time because everyone else on the Board with you already knows what AAPD stands for.
  • Don’t use acronyms to refer to a group of people even if it does shorten the length of the words. It removes the human portion of those being referred to. (For example, PWD is sometimes used to refer to People with Disabilities). 
  • Don’t feel like an outsider. Everyone sitting in the room with you once started out on the same page not knowing what everything meant. You will get there. It just takes time.
  • Don’t make assumptions. Remember, an acronym that you use and are familiar with might mean something totally different to another person. Always clarify what you are referring to.