War on Words

Over the many years that I have been working to support adults, I have found myself becoming increasingly concerned about the way we describe and label people who may have ‘multiple and complex needs’.  Whilst I fully understand the need for labels as descriptors, my concern is the way in which we do it and the increasing number of ‘war words’ we use, which does a disservice to the people we support.

When I took over my role at Shekinah we, like many other charities operating in this sector, freely bandied about a range of labels to describe our work and the people we support: ‘entrenched rough sleepers’, ‘frontline services’, ‘service user’, ‘war on drugs/alcohol’, ‘hard to reach’, ‘offenders’ and ‘ex-offenders’ to name but a few.

To an outsider, it may understandably have felt that we were describing conflict; implying that staff on a daily basis were going into battle with people, as opposed to supporting them.  On one occasion, during a people accessing services consultation event, a man who regularly used our services asked me a simple question, which consequently made me more determined than ever to seriously rethink the use of our language.

His question was simply: ‘When do I stop being an ex-offender or former service user?’

Whenever I am asked things like this, I always try to relate it to myself; how would I like to be described?  If I applied the same principle to myself, I would need to introduce myself as ‘John Hamblin, divorcee and former truant!’

Surely if we are to subscribe to the edict that our past should not dictate our future, then we need to challenge these labels and the way we use them.  It also got me thinking that if we are going to label people, perhaps we should be giving aspirational labels instead such as ‘student’, ‘member’, ‘participant’ or even better, ‘people’.

It was several months later that this issue came up again at a CEO’s meeting where we all agreed it was something that several agencies wanted to address but were unsure where to start.  A local commissioner who was present suggested that a good starting point would be for us as individuals to challenge each other when we were all together about the use of descriptive words.  We all agreed and within the first ten minutes someone challenged the word ‘clean’ to describe someone that was no longer using substances.  The debate that followed was fascinating and again, got us all thinking about if people are ‘clean’ when not using substances the inference is that they are ‘dirty’ when using them.  Now I can hear the resounding cry, ‘But how far do you take it; is this political correctness gone mad?’  Whilst this is a natural reaction, surely if we are working with people we don’t want to do anything that could potentially reinforce stigma and harmful public perception?

So, what have we as an organisation been doing about this?  As with all change it takes time, and cannot happen overnight.  Changing the language is the easy bit, changing the practice is always more difficult.  At Shekinah, we continually invest in more training and are reframing all of our written material that we use both internally and externally.  This does not mean that we will never use labels but simply moving words around can make a difference.  For example, instead of describing someone as a ‘homeless person’ we would use the words a ‘person that is homeless’, which simply puts the person before the problem.

Equally, the challenge for us all, is about the group of people collectively referred to as ‘hard to reach’.  Maybe instead of labelling them as hard to reach, what we should be asking is how we can make services easier for people to access.

When it comes down to it, in an ideal world we’d just be able to say we work with ‘people’.  But as I’ve said above, I do recognise the need to be more specific than that in some of our communications to help other people understand who we’re here to support.  After much discussion with the people we are working with, we decided to go with a number of titles dependent upon the project they are accessing.  So, for some it’s ‘community member’, for others it’s ‘trainee’ or ‘student’.

It’s important to us that if a label must be used, then it should really be chosen by the person wearing it.  And it’s also important to stay away from words which indicate conflict and struggle.  In order to make changes and look at issues they might find difficult, people accessing our services need to feel respected, valued and safe.  We’re here to support and work with people.  We’re not in the trenches and we’re not going into battle.  We work collaboratively to identify each person’s individual and unique needs and look at what would be a good outcome for them, then try to provide the support that they need to help them achieve that.

John Hamblin

Chief Executive Shekinah

John originally wrote this for Research in Practice and felt it would be good to share this with you all.