What’s in a Name?

This quotation is over-used, but that is because it raises an important issue. Identities matter to people, and names are handles on identities. So I’m going to use the quote as well. The Webmag has already carried articles about the significance of surnames and the terms we use to describe the places where we provide services. Keith White quite liked the idea of kindergartens, as places where children could grow.

My question in this article is : what do we call people? People argue endlessly about this one, and they were carrying on about it in the recent Social Care Association Annual Seminar. What people hated most was the use of the term service user.

It certainly sounds rather impersonal and clumsy, but no one has yet come up with a better word to cover everyone who uses different services. If you talk about residents, for example, do you always have to add on and day care clients, if you want to talk about the two groups combined? Service users covers both, and a lot more besides.

One of the reasons why service users is so dislike is that it is often shortened to users, and that can be taken to suggest that they are on drugs – not a welcome confusion for those involved.

So, how about clients? That has a good pedigree. Lawyers have clients. The term hints that one is purchasing a professional service, even if in the personal social services the people who get the services are not the payers. Perhaps the genuine clients are the local authority commissioning officers. The term also sounds slightly genteel, and doesn’t really fit groups of people who are forced to have the services, either by necessity or by court order.

There was a move a few years back to call people customers. That sounds nice. You pop along to the greengrocer and decide if you want apples or pears, and you pay for them, so you’re a customer. Then you pop along to the social services, and they assess you and decide what is in your best interests and what they can afford to pay for, and what they have on the shelf that may or may not fit, but it’s all they’ve got. That does not sound much like being a customer.

What do you call children? A child?

Someone suggested beneficiaries, presumably because people are intended to benefit from the services they get. A good idea, but a loser in my view. For a start, it sounds as if people are being funded out of cash they’ve inherited. That might be true if they’re well off and they’re being means-tested, but it’s not what was intended. The real reason why the term won’t work, though, is that people will always be mis-spelling it. You need something easy.

So what about children? Under the law, children stay children until they are 18, but you won’t find many of them who respond to the term past their latency period. So you add the term young people? Or is it adolescents? Or teen-agers? Or youths?

What do you call children? Adolescents?

There are problems with each term. Youth is used a lot as the collective term in North America, but in Britain it has connotations of delinquency in some circumstances. If you see some youths in the street, you can be sure they are up to no good. Teenagers has a hint of rebellion against parents, and the adjective spotty seems to be permanently attached to adolescents. Young people is still all right, but it really is quite a mouthful if you have to talk about children and young people all the time in order to keep everyone happy. That’s why the National Children’s Bureau has not become the NCAYPB.

What do you call children? Teenagers?

It seems that to get things right we often have to use very long terms. So people become people with learning disabilities or people with physical disabilities. These are much longer terms, used to respect people’s feelings, and replace historical terms which carry unpleasant connotations, such as morons, imbeciles, spastics or cripples. In using the current terms, though, there are still problems. Some people want to be called disabled people instead of people with disabilities. How do we keep up with the latest wishes if we are wanting to say the right thing? This is particularly problematic for foreigners who may have been taught the terminology of twenty years ago, and who haven’t got the latest dictionary.

Perhaps the nicest term I’ve come across was the American way of describing people as differently abled. The problem is that such a term covers all of us. Indeed, all of us have learning disabilities from the cleverest Mensa member downwards. One of the points of using these terms is to be able to distinguish so that we can discriminate in favour of the group of people in question. The blander and less offensive the term, the less precise and useful. I gather than some people want to change SCOPE back to the Spastics Society because the name has lost its meaning.

The same goes for long terms. What happens – unhappily – is the young people become YPs, and so on. It is a quite natural process. Jargon is created when groups of people need to simplify their communications for the sake of speed and simplicity. Outsiders may object as they do not understand the in-group terminology or abbreviations, and the people described may object because they don’t like being described by initials, but it will always happen. If you are gathering statistics, you have to define groups and give them short titles to fit the columns.

As terminology moves on, there can also be losses. At one time, people attending school were schoolchildren or pupils, while those at college or university were students. Now, the use of student has crept downwards to include all secondary school age children. Maybe I am out of date; perhaps it is already used for those in nursery classes. Nor can I really grasp why the change was necessary, other than as a matter of fashion, as the previous terms had no imprecision or unhappy connotations of which I am aware. The outcome, though, is that a new term is needed for those at college or university if they are to be distinguished from those at school.

Perhaps the main value in talking about the alternative terms is not the hope that one day we will find the perfect term, but that the process of talking about the implications of using different terms alerts us to people’s needs and feelings, and we can then try to use language which conveys respect and concern, rather than unwitting insensitivity.

Trying to find terms which command respect and offer dignity is impossible as long as the conditions being described carry connotations of dependence, weakness or powerlessness. Every newly selected term will eventually be affected, unless of course, our attitudes change. This means that people with problems need to have control over their circumstances to the point that they can command respect.

At the SCA Annual Seminar, someone suggested the best term to replace service users was victims. When the services on offer fail to meet people’s needs but compound them, that term is more than a joke. It can be a reality. Nor is it just the responsibility of the Government, the policy-makers or the senior managers to put it right. Certainly they have a role to play in setting the tone and providing resources, but sensitivity to needs and feelings matters at all levels in the caring services.

One thing we can be grateful for. The term cli-pat – used to describe the combination of Health Service patients and Social Services clients – seems to have bitten the dust. If any term deserved the prize for Worst Bureaucratic Invention of the Year, that was it. Who would ever want to be called a cli-pat?

What do you think?

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