'Service users' by any other name

I’m not close enough to the lore of social services to be aware of for quite how long ‘service users’ has been the politically acceptable term in use to refer to the aged, the infirm, the disabled, the mentally ill and those other members of society whose care is the meat and drink of the profession.

When I Googled it just now, the ubiquity of the term in social services communications, however, suggests to me that it’s been around for quite some while.

It’s easy to imagine the ‘meeting’ which coined this term. Good, well-intentioned social care professionals, with a heady array of social sciences degrees and liberal thought processes. And a good job they did, too. From their side of the table. From the perspective of their profession, when discussing the needs and rights of those in their care, the term ‘Service Users’ is not only without discrimination, hurtfulness, slur or insult (or the possibility of being misconstrued as any of these); it is also a reminder to their colleagues that these most likely disadvantaged members of society are, in fact, the reason for their services to exist, and should thus be afforded every bit as much respect as the descriptor ‘customer’ should command in a more commercial environment.

So when doesn’t this apparently sound piece of terminology work?

I found myself writing recently for a company which is in the business of operating care homes. In rewriting their site, I needed to write profiles of each of their half dozen homes. One job of these profiles (though not the only job, of course) is to portray the homes in an encouraging and confidence-winning way to anyone charged with making arrangements for an elderly or disadvantaged relative or friend.

In this context, then, how do you refer to those who live, or attend at, care homes? Is your elderly mother appropriately described as a ‘service user’? Is your long-term disabled partner? Or your mentally handicapped teenage son? Of course not. While in a detached sense even a relative or friend of such a person might be able to see the sense and decency in referring to their loved one as such, in a human, first-impact sense it feels heartless and austere. Quite the opposite, in truth, of what the good people who coined it intended.

Now the problem of course comes if the client, knowing her sector well, argues that the term ‘service user’ is in universal uesage and that to use anything else is just, simply, inappropriate or outmoded.

She’s thinking about everything she knows, and has read, and has heard at conferences that says these people’s rights are best respected by referring to them as ‘service users’.

Our job is to remind her that the relatives and friends of those around whom her business is based know none of this. But they do know that to read that ‘……….. Home respects the right of choice and decision making of its service users’, they feel none of the reassurance they sense when they read that ‘………. Home respects the right of choice and decision making of its residents and all others using its service’.

That’s just an example, of course, and the disadvantage of writing in that way is that you can’t just fire in the same phrase every time, in the way you can with ‘service users’.

Each instance will require taking care of on an individual basis.

A bit like each ‘service user’.