An Oppressive Way With Words

    It is paramount that the people who use health and social care
    services are involved in the development of the services of the
    future. However, this is not going to be achieved by using language
    that labels them derogatively. Describing them as “users”, a term
    which many see as negative, is more likely to alienate the people
    who use services rather than encourage them to collaborate.

    Theorists have long argued that social labelling may trigger
    individuals to alter their behaviour so that they conform to what
    is expected of them.

    As professionals we are qualified to question the vocabulary we use
    to describe individuals. But, for some reason, those of us in the
    social care field have chosen not to. In our role as social workers
    we are expected to promote the well-being of both individuals and
    society, and it is our duty to act in clients’ best interest. But
    social workers have let down their clients by accepting and
    continuing to use terms that negatively label them.

    If central and local government want the social work profession to
    benefit from the feedback of individuals on the receiving end of
    services it is essential that using the right sort of language
    becomes a priority. The aim should be to foster relationships, not
    to set up a divide by using inappropriate labels. In my view,
    social workers should be pushing for more empowering language to be
    used.

    In order for the people who use services to be properly involved in
    service development it is essential that all health and social care
    practitioners understand the reasons behind the push to involve
    clients. Staff at all levels need to support their inclusion, not
    just those in the upper echelons of senior management.

    If we are serious about listening to the invaluable input from the
    people who use services we must think carefully about how we
    communicate with them. Using stigmatising vocabulary will not help
    and words such as user could even be detrimental to their
    self-esteem.

    There is no easy solution to this dilemma but as social workers we
    have a duty to end any oppressive practice.

    Kristin Heffernan is a lecturer in the health and social
    care department at Royal Holloway, University of
    London

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