Do labels create blaming of clients? Liz Davies, General Manager

annoying family conversation e1437500084927 300x212 - Do labels create blaming of clients? Liz Davies, General Manager

The way we talk about clients influences how we then work with them.

I attended an excellent presentation by Debbie Hager from the University of Auckland who unpacked common terminology used in the social sector – ‘the hard to reach’ and ‘vulnerable’ people.
Using the example of people experiencing family violence she urged people to flip the paradigm. Instead of referring to these people as ‘vulnerable’, instead we talk about people endangered by inadequate systems and social attitudes towards violence.

This flip then turns the focus onto the system and attitudes that enable violence instead of in the ‘vulnerable’ individual experiencing family violence.

That’s not to say people experiencing family violence don’t need assistance, of course they do. But it suggests attention also needs to focus on systems and attitudes.

Pettily, this made me also think about how we use terms like ‘vulnerable’ as shorthand or we create acronyms. I’m not sure if the acronym for ‘people endangered by inadequate systems and social attitudes’ or PEBISASA will catch on but I really like placing the focus on systems and attitudes.

Another example of a common term, ‘hard to reach’ often brings connotations of people being difficult, non-compliant or intractable. Again, using the example of people affected by family violence, they are often frightened, which inhibits their ability to think clearly, may have sustained head injuries with all the cognitive difficulties this brings with it and for many, they also have mental health problems.

So if we flip the paradigm that people who are ‘hard to reach’ are functioning as well as they can, rather than being difficult, it changes to an empathetic mindset that recognise the factors impacting on a person’s ability to function and how to then adapt the way in which professionals then work with the person.

Conversely, if a client is viewed as ‘difficult’ or hard to reach, the blame is often laid at the doorstep of the individual or client for missing appointments, not home when you arranged to visit etc.

The presentation was a timely reminder of the power of language and how it can influence how we view, speak about and work with people who use social services.

The next time I say or tap out on my laptop the terms ‘vulnerable’ or ‘hard to reach’ or similar terms, I will think twice and try to flip the paradigm.