Disability and language

I’ve attended a number of social and health care conferences as a
service user representative, and two things have struck me. First,
I have been encouraged by the level of genuine concern, the real
emotional attachment that practitioners display for the people they
work with. The other aspect, which concerns me more, is the use of

Every profession develops its own jargon. Sometimes it is
essential. If I need an operation, I’d rather the surgeon and their
team knew they were operating on the hepatic flexure of the large
intestine rather than that bit of gut over to the left, or right,
depending on which way you are looking at it.

Sometimes, it’s a form of shorthand, when complex, shared ideas
need to be communicated quickly to someone of the same profession.
I’m glad someone knows the difference between 72-pin RAM, a USB
port and a hole in the wall.

What I have found difficult at these conferences is the mixture of
management-speak and social work jargon, which is so painfully
aware of the capacity of language to hurt and offend that it ends
up being just plain confusing to the people to whom it actually

What makes matters worse is that what is acceptable changes so
quickly. What actually is the difference between a client, a
customer and a service user? What kind of faux pas have I made if I
describe myself as a disabled person rather than a person with a

Why have goals suddenly become outcomes? And why were they aims and
objectives somewhere in between? What’s the difference between a
department and a directorate? Why day opportunities rather than day
services? And why complex needs instead of severely disabled?

Everyone knows that the language is inaccessible to the
uninitiated. Every primary care trust and social services
department – even the Department of Health in its green paper –
produces easy-to-read versions of documents. If the ideas can be
put across in clear language, why aren’t they written this way in
the first place?

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