The Power of Language in Safeguarding Practice

Through verbal and written communication, language is embedded within our daily lives. Yet language is not neutral. Through our use of language, whether consciously or unconsciously, we can exacerbate existing inequalities.

It is important that we take the time to reflect on the language we use and the impact this might have on those around us. This could be in an employment setting or relate to the language we use within our network of friends and family.

Why is Language Important in Safeguarding?

From a safeguarding perspective, language is crucial.

As people working within the safeguarding sector, it is important that we consider the terminology we use and explain any ‘jargon’ and complex terminology to ensure that people understand what safeguarding is and what their role is if they have any concerns.

Different agencies and professions have different ways of understanding and describing needs and thus a complex range of terminology and acronyms are often used. If this terminology is not explained, it can mean that other professionals and the people and families we work with, feel disempowered and excluded, which in turn, may harm partnership working and ultimately affect outcomes and wellbeing.

The language used within safeguarding can change regularly. In response the NCVO have developed a helpful guide of the phrases that are commonly used.

For practitioners supporting children and adults, using appropriate language will highlight that you understand their experiences and may encourage someone to disclose harm and abuse or access support.

How can we De-Stigmatise Language?

If the words used by professionals imply hierarchy, moral superiority or suggest victim-blaming, this could have a stigmatising impact. Choosing neutral terminology or shifting phrases to describe the abuse or harm that has occurred, rather than blaming the victim, can make a huge difference in increasing inclusivity within safeguarding practice.

For example:

  • Vojack (2009) suggests the words ‘person’ ‘or individual’ could be used instead of ‘client’, ‘patient’ and ‘recipient’. Better yet, the actual names of people may be used instead of assigning categories and labels. These changes reduce the hierarchy within the language that is used.
  • The Children’s Society and Victim Support recommend avoiding using terms such as ‘the young person has been contacting adult males/females via phone or internet’, when discussing the exploitation of young people. This phrase implies that young person is responsible for the communication, rather than reflecting the abusive context. Instead say ‘adults have been contacting the young person’ or ‘the young person may have been groomed’.
  • Sporting Equals suggest avoiding using terms such as ‘hard to reach’ as this implies individuals choose not to engage and fails to recognise the structural inequalities and barriers people may encounter. Instead, phrases such as ‘underrepresented communities’ or ‘communities that face barriers to participation’.


Using Language to Describe Individuals

Everyone is different. Therefore, it is important that you ask the people you are communicating with how they would like to be referred to or described. For instance, research by the National Autistic Society and Mind found that some people preferred the use of identity-first language (i.e. being referred to as an autistic person), whilst others preferred the term ‘a person with autism’ as they felt autism only made up one part of their identity.

If you are unsure, ask the person you are communicating with how they would like to be described.

Additionally, there has been a growing concern about the terminology used to describe people impacted by racial discrimination. Sporting Equals recommends using terms such as ‘racially diverse communities’ or using phrases such as ‘a person with Indian heritage’ to be specific about who you are describing.

Finally, research by Scope found that many people feel uncomfortable speaking to people with disabilities. In response, they have developed suggestions for appropriate language. Scope encourage people to use terms such as ‘disabled people/person’, ‘people with a learning difficulty’ or ‘a wheelchair user’ as opposed to describing someone as ‘wheelchair bound’.

Language is Always Evolving

The language we use changes regularly. This happens as new laws come into place and when the sector realises language can be improved to represent people more accurately or to cause less harm.

It is important that we continue to reflect on the language we use and develop our practice, to increase accessibility for all.

If you have any resources that support organisations or practitioners to adapt their language, please get in touch!


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