Rewriting social care

I’ve been working in adult social care for over 15 years, and I’ve spent a significant proportion of that time writing about it. I’ve summarised statutory guidance, policy documents, research articles, campaign reports, news stories and relevant blogs to produce a monthly Developments in Adult Social Care bulletin email. I’ve drafted and edited procedures, guidance documents, newsletters and briefings, and proof-read and rewritten web pages, factsheets and ‘standard letters’.

Much of my writing has been an attempt to explain the social care ‘system’ – trying first to make sense myself of all the complexities and processes and the associated jargon and acronyms, and then editing, rewriting and presenting information in a clear, concise and accessible form to support other people to understand it too.

Now though, after years of trying to clarify and explain the process and bureaucracy of social care in plain language, I want to explore how the language we use within and about social care exposes and perpetuates our attitudes and behaviours, and consider how we can shift the narrative to tell a very different story about social care.

Words that make you go hmmm…

I’ve recently worked with Partners4Change who, as part of The Three Conversations® approach, introduced the concept of banned words. These are the words that describe the failed system of process, bureaucracy, transactions and services (‘screening’, ‘signposting’, ‘referral’, ‘assessment’, ‘eligibility’, ‘care package’). They are the labels that perpetuate the divide between the people who work in the system and the people who turn to it in need of some support (‘customer’, ‘service user’, ‘client’, ‘case’). They are the phrases that blame (‘challenging behaviour’, ‘refusal to engage’, ‘complex needs’, ‘bed blocking’, ‘non-complaint’, ‘hard to reach’).

As I explain in my first blog, in Sheffield we weren’t entirely convinced by the idea of banning words, so instead we talked of words that make you go hmmm… It’s those same words and phrases that I’m planning to explore in more detail here in an attempt to explain why they make me go hmmm.

Rewriting social care is so much more than just providing a plain language guide to a complex system. That’s not what I’m aiming to do here, and anyway TLAP have got that covered with their comprehensive Care and Support Jargon Buster, and Mark Neary has done an excellent job of translating the jargon in his A-Z of Carespeak.

It’s also not about finding new words to rebrand the same old practice.

It’s about unpicking why the words and phrases that we still use every single day in the current world of social care perpetuate the system and dehumanise the people lost within it, and it’s about exploring an alternative vocabulary that describes a very different approach.

I firmly believe that the language we use reflects our values and our feelings and in turn the way we behave. Our better, brighter social care future is one with people and communities and stories and relationships and dreams and love and good lives and hope at its heart. A whole new language. Social care rewritten.

About me

I work in practice development in adult social care, but my background is in information and communications. I am by no means an expert – other than in my own life. However, I read a lot, listen and observe, reflect and learn continuously, and I’m passionate about the better, brighter social care future ahead.

My writing is in no way a criticism of colleagues working in social care. Nor is it based solely on my first-hand experience. It’s a personal reflection on the system as a whole, which we’ve all had a hand in creating and maintaining. I’ve played my part in perpetuating the bureaucracy and red tape by writing step-by-step procedures to describe processes designed to move people through the system, and explaining rather than challenging the complexity. But by analysing and unpicking the current language of social care, and exploring the vocabulary of the future social care world, I’m aiming to play a small part in a very big change for the better.

Bryony Shannon