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Bid to banish 'oppressive' language in social work

Practitioners, academics, people with lived experience and students launch campaign

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 3 March, 2021

A campaign to interrogate the language of social work has been launched by activists who claim it's too often “oppressive, alienating and damaging”.

The drive by the Social Work Action Group (SWAG) aims to stimulatle debate and look at the impact language used by professionals has on people coming into contact with services through sharing testimonials on social media.

Jason Barnes, founder of SWAG - a network of social workers, people with lived experience, academics and students - said: “We believe language is so fundamental to building those trusting relationships for the people we work with and there are changes necessary within that.

“I know myself from being in social work for eight years so much jargon can run off my tongue and it is really important we take stock of what we are saying, how we are carrying out our work and the impact that can have on families and others.”

Chris Wild, a campaigner for young people in care, said his own experiences in the care system highlighted the need for change.

“I always felt worthless when I was in a professional environment and I was referred to as a ‘looked after child’. It’s archaic. The care sector hasn’t changed but the world around it has and we have got to modernise the way we use our language.

“There’s that division automatically between authorities and young people. We have got to try and close that gap somehow and unite as a collaborative and give young people the respect they deserve and we’ll get it back.

“Language is the way forward - to change the care sector for the future we’ve got to change the language and that will help everything else around it.”

SWAG was created in 2016 with a mission to bring change in social work culture, education and practice and reform services through “co-produced actions and campaigns”.

In a statement launching the Language in Social Work campaign on 1 March, it said: “The ways in which social workers speak to and engage with parents and families can be supportive and beneficial but too often it is experienced as oppressive, alienating and damaging.

“Social work systems can perpetuate hurt and injustice through language which is judgemental, heteronormative and rigid.”

SWAG's poverty representative Richard Smith stressed language could be as oppressive as poverty in the way it is experienced by individuals.

“Our collective aim is to bridge the gap between social workers and those who have experience of social work intervention," he said.

“Part of the reason this exists in the first place is that we don’t talk enough about the most common experience held by people that have a social worker - that is the experience of poverty.

“Challenging structural injustices should be a core part of our role. We need to make sure we are doing so in a way that is with and not for. Our language in social work campaign is within that spirit of unity. There are types of language that subjugate and types of language that liberate.”

A series of videos from parents, people with lived experience, social workers, academics and students will be posted on social media as part of the campaign.

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