Language is power: Two things you need to know for practice with disabled people

language is power
Image from

Did you know that over one fifth of the United States population has an impairment that leads to a disability? Given this, social workers are bound to engage in practice with disabled people across many service sectors – a reality which leads to the need for disability competence – and that includes competence around language choices. Whether you are working in child welfare, employee assistance programs, criminal justice or end-of-life care, you will need some guidance on how to approach your work with disabled people in a respectful manner. Here are two helpful things you need to know to be a better social worker in partnership with disabled people.

First, it is always ideal to look to your professional association for guidance. In the case of practice with the disability community, the National Association of Social Workers not only has a disability policy statement, but they also have made a major change to their Code of Ethics (CoE). The CoE is the guide post in our profession, and in setting out standards for practice, it names a series of diversity factors, including, for example, race, ethnicity and national origin. Until the most recent revision of the CoE however, disability was the only diversity factor that was not framed in a positive light.

To rectify this, the current version of the CoE replaces the term “disability” with “ability” in order to present a more strength-based framework that can counteract dominant society norms that belie the capacities of disabled people. Specifically, the CoE states that social workers should “obtain education and seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression” with respect to people with varying abilities. While this may be a turn off to people that embrace identity-first language (i.e. disabled people vs. people with disabilities), as a disabled person, I believe that this simple change is helpful, and does not fall into the camp of widely-rejected, outdated and offensive terms such as “differently abled,” “handicapped,” or “special needs” that are often used by well-intentioned people. Check out, for example, Lydia X. Z. Brown’s glossary of ableist phrases.

Second, it is also always a best practice to learn more about the language preferences from our clients’ cultural communities. Lately, not a day goes by on my Twitter feed when I don’t see commentary from disabled people about their preferences for either person-first language or identity-first language. Check out the #identityfirst hashtag, for example. For many years, social workers were encouraged to use person-first language as a way of showing respect, as opposed to labeling someone as “a schizophrenic,” or “autistic,” for example, both of which were felt to have negative connotations at the time. Proponents of identity-first language have reclaimed such terms by embracing their disability identity first. For example, a well-known disability rights leader prefers to be called Autistic, and another advocate prefers to be referred to as mad (signifying mental illness). For social workers new to practice with disabled people, an ideal approach could involve using approaches interchangeably until it is clear what type of language is preferred by the client in question. Remember, language is a key component to client engagement, and, therefore, language is power.

Regardless of whether you are identifying populations with varying abilities, or honoring your clients’ wishes for person-first or identity-first language, the most important thing is to see people for who they are, not for the stereotypes or assumptions that often precede them.



Why social workers shouldn’t be “servicing” the people they work with

Let’s reconsider how we refer to the people we work with in our social work practice, it’s a question of respect. (Image credit:

Debates about how to refer to the people social workers support through the provision of care and service referrals ebbs and flows. We have moved on from the medicalized “patient” to the more neutral “client.”  Some critique the “client” moniker, and have embraced a more business-like approach in the use of the term “consumer.” Some critique that approach as well given our society’s shift into a heavily consumer-oriented culture. While we may all just want to consider talking about the “people” we work with, one thing we should all give a second thought to is the use of the term “servicing” when referring to what it is we do as social workers.

Let me give you an example from an interaction I had with a student in class. She is my best student, but when she spoke about the people she worked with, she said “I worked as an Early Head Start Home Visitor and serviced prenatal clients as well as children under 3 years old.” In and around my classrooms, I can’t seem to escape social workers in training who are “servicing” their clients, especially those in the child welfare sector. Yes, we provide services, and we are service providers, but we should not be “servicing” people.

Inanimate objects, such as automobiles are serviced, or perhaps computer networks, but not the people we work with. By referring to the people we work with as being “serviceable,” I argue that we are inhibiting their agency – or their capacity to acting or exert power. Social workers are tasked – very clearly – with working towards social justice both for and with the people they work with. This is made clear in the profession’s Code of Ethics, which encourages us to partner with the people we work with. Given this, there is no room for drive-through “servicing,” a term that is way too provider-centric.

Finally, not only is the term “servicing” disempowering, it is also disrespectful. Many social workers that support people working in the sex industry report that the term “servicing” is used to refer to the provision of sexual services to a paying client in that industry. Political correctness should not factor in here, because words do matter in building rapport with people – and in respecting them. Please consider taking the time to reflect on how it is you refer to the people you work with!