The Power of Labels

Words carry an ancient weight. They form a tapestry we weave for each other through conversations, media and even our own internal monologues. The way we describe the world defines the way we perceive it, though frequently this happens without us even noticing. So when we are describing someone as a ‘carer’ or a ‘service user’ it seems natural from one perspective, but it can be uplifting or disenfranchising depending on someone else’s.

With such power must come a measure of responsibility for the vernacular we employ. We spoke to John Hamblin, CEO of Devon based charity Shekinah, about his perspective and experience of the power, necessity and danger of labels. As a support charity, Shekinah are at the forefront of supporting marginalised and vulnerable people from a wide range of circumstances in Devon.

The Need for Labels

Shekinah label logo

One of the dangers with language is when it is used to categorise people. Labels can quickly become demarcations limiting someone’s ability to interact with the world around them. Yet, these labels also form a crucial aspect of our system, enabling us to provide the right care in the appropriate way for people.

“We’re still in this necessity to label people sometimes for things like access to the benefit system,” explains John. “What can we do about the forms that we use and the processes we use? How can we make them more relevant to the individuals without giving people these lifelong labels?”

It is a delicate balancing act to find the best way to separate people’s needs and support them without separating the people themselves and isolating them. One that requires both an individual conscious effort and a communal, systemic one.

The Need for Change

Many systems require a change of mindset on the part of their participants before they can change their process. Shekinah has worked closely with Dr Toby Lowe of Newcastle University for six years on what they describe as a ‘system change’.

“In academic terms, what we were talking about is managing in complex systems,” says John. “In layman’s terms, charities don’t change people’s lives, you know, we at best create opportunities. The individual changes their own life.”

In order to start addressing the problem they held hundreds of conversations with people who have ‘lived experience’ from those who draw on care, to people dealing with mental health issues, as well as people without homes and many other experiences.

“We had lots of sessions, which were just conversations. Which are really interesting on both sides, and it wasn’t until we heard [about the power of these labels] from the people who were the recipients of the labels. The majority said; ‘I actually found it pretty derogatory. I know you might have to put it on my job seekers form, but I don’t want that label.’”

The Need for Patience

Changing entrenched systems and their methods of communication and categorisation is never an easy feat. Language evolves on its own timeline, shaped by the cultures it exists within. John framed this conundrum simply:

“The question for all of us is, what would we want to be described [as]?”

Do you want to be labelled on your worst day? By your illness or your incapacity? One would assume not. There is a necessary purpose behind labels, but there is also the unintended stigma. The only way we will be able to move past the latter and continue to benefit from the former is through continued conversation across care and other social services.

Changing labels and perspectives

The process will not be smooth, and no one is perfect all the time. A point John is quick to make.

“I’ve done it myself. We go to conferences, and we drag somebody up who used to use our service. And I introduced them as an ex-client. This guy said to me; ‘when does the “ex” part drop, John?’ So I haven’t got the answers…that’s still work in progress.”

Patience is crucial in coming to understand large changes to inherent habits. We have to be willing to allow people to be wrong, and create an environment in which people can learn and grow together.

The Need, Rather than the Name

It is crucial we use language to improve our world. It is a cornerstone of our community and frequently creates the bridge across which so many people in care connect. Much like John, we don’t have the answers, but we are committed to working with providers to find them. So we figured the best place to start was with a question. (A question John put to us and we’re still struggling with)

“How can we offer services to people without them becoming service users?”

Please let us know if you have any ideas.

You can read John’s excellent article ‘War on Words’ here.

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