Isn't Language Funny!

We need to be careful about the language we choose to use in health and social care.

Author: Mark Humble

I remember getting caught up in an English Defence League protest in Newcastle a few years ago. I vividly remember a small group of people shouting: “What do we want? Repatriation! When do we want it? Now!”

Fast forward ten years I am sitting in a meeting with health and social care colleagues talking about ‘repatriation’.

I am not suggesting for a minute that there is any connection with the ideology of the political far-right and how we support people with a learning disability, but I do understand that sometimes we have to reclaim certain words. There has been some great work in the USA with people looking to reclaim the N word and I loved during Euro 2006 that the term ‘patriotic’ was pulled back from the political right, and rightly reclaimed by anyone who was proud to be English.

However, I do worry how we systemise a process using serviceland language. What ‘repatriation’ is trying to do is generally worthwhile as it's about supporting people to leave in-patient hospitals after often a long stay to where they consider their home.

If we use one of Tricia Nicolls’ brilliant tests for a gloriously ordinary life for example, which is that the language to describe people should be the language of places like the kitchen or pub. Then, in a pub talking about repatriation, the speaker is often likely to have a shaved head and have at least one union jack somewhere on their person! So I'm not sure why the health and care system insists on using language that isn’t the language of families and friends.

Rather than repatriation why not ‘breaking out’, ‘springing’, ‘setting free’ or ‘escaping’? 

For a while in the North East of England the term used was ‘re-homing’ and that is another conversation altogether!

I think using language like this depersonalises and isn’t a reminder of what this is about: people being stuck miles away from their homes, familiar surroundings, and families. It becomes the language of the system rather than the language of family and friends. 

Think of the other words used on an almost daily basis to describe people with a learning disability: complex, vulnerable, challenging, non-compliant - terms which in themselves often really don’t mean anything, but are certainly not often seen as positive traits. I bet on reflection there are certain circumstances when we all could be any of these terms.

I have also recently noticed a move back to language that indicates some level of hierarchy of a learning disability e.g. mild, moderate, severe or profound and multiple, can you have more than one? It's not enough to burden someone with the label of a learning disability, the system now seems to need now to say yours isn’t as bad as theirs! High grade and low grade anyone?

I guess all I am trying to say is we need to start to use the language of the home and place when talking about people with a learning disability and not the language of the system, not only because this is the language that humanises and reminds us people are not so different, but also because it supports effective communication, by avoiding the jargon of the system.

So, next time you're in the pub, if someone asks what do you do in your job, tell them you ‘do repatriation’ and see what their reaction is!

The publisher is Citizen Network Research. Isn't Language Funny! © Mark Humble 2024.

Article | 09.05.24

Inclusion, intellectual disabilities, social care, England, Article

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