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

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

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

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