It’s high time we abandoned the language of vulnerability

‘To be alive is to be vulnerable’ Madeleine L’Engle

The language of ‘vulnerability’ continues to pervade public discourse regarding disabled people. ‘Vulnerability’ is employed to a number of ends by policy-makers and campaigners alike. In Parliamentary debates regarding welfare reform, politicians refer to the impact of benefit cuts not on disabled citizens but on ‘our most vulnerable citizens’. In relation to crime, disabled victims are often described as ‘vulnerable.’  Human rights defenders include disabled people among ‘vulnerable groups.’  In social care, official terminology describes people as ‘vulnerable adults’ to identify their need for additional ‘safeguarding.’

The term ‘vulnerable’ is a value-laden frame. It conveys weakness, the lack of capacity and agency of a person to look after themselves, the increased likelihood that they might come in harms way or be taken advantage of. In the context of welfare reform it is used to demark a group of people who cannot be expected to assume the same responsibilities as other citizens.   It is employed to invoke compassion and to secure special ‘protection.’ It is also used instrumentally by people – particularly politicians – who wish to make their opponents appear unkind.

I believe that in fact the language of vulnerability makes disabled people less safe, undermines their status and opportunities in society and displaces accountability for their situation.

The paradox of employing the frame of ‘vulnerability’ is that it makes people more vulnerable. It does so by contributing to prejudices about disabled people. An apparently benevolent frame ‘vulnerability’ nevertheless conveys the same weakness and lack of capacity as the horrifyingly evil phrase ‘useless eaters’ employed by Nazi propaganda to win support for systematically murdering disabled adults and children.   It ‘others’ and objectifies disabled people, contributing to the process of de-humanisation that typically lies behind all identity based violence, abuse and neglect.

It undermines status and opportunities by painting people as lacking agency or as not being in possession of any productive potential.   It promotes the idea that society’s primary responsibility should be to act as custodians, not to respect and promote disabled people’s freedoms. This in turn orientates public policy and services towards a culture of liability for disabled people, in which people’s freedom’s are curtailed rather than supported.

And it displaces accountability by locating the vulnerability within the person, not their life situation and circumstances.   Taking people’s benefits away places them in a vulnerable situation. Not believing a person when they report that they have been sexually assaulted places them on a vulnerable situation. Housing a person with a learning disability on an estate where there are high levels of social deprivation and crime and where they have no social networks places them in a vulnerable situation. People become vulnerable when institutions fail and communities exclude. Describing people as intrinsically vulnerable allows the institutions to pass off that failure and communities to carry on excluding.

When I have raised this issue in the past few years people have said ‘yes, but we have no choice but to use these terms to fight the battles we have to fight over welfare reform.’   Yet there is no evidence that the language of vulnerability is effective even within the narrow scope of protecting people’s basic standard of living. Research in the USA carried out by the Frameworks Institute looked at the most effective frames via which to win public support for investment in programmes to promote early childhood development. Campaigners in the field had almost universally used ‘vulnerability’ when framing their policy advocacy and yet when Frameworks conducted research they found that the language of vulnerability actually depressed public support for the proposals.   Infinitely more powerful were frames regarding ingenuity and prosperity.   While to the best of my knowledge similar research has not been carried out here or in the USA into the effect of using the language of vulnerability in conjunction with policies regarding disabled people, I would hypothesise similar results. This – alongside the issues I raise above – is why I have proposed that disability activists avoid the language of welfare, care and ‘spending’ and instead use the language of investment in support, freedom and opportunity.

So, ‘vulnerability’ is potentially an ineffective frame that makes people less safe, cultivates prejudice and displaces accountability, doing profound damage to the well-being, freedom and opportunities of disabled people overall. It needs consigning to the dustbin of history. But what, if anything, should replace it?

8 thoughts on “It’s high time we abandoned the language of vulnerability

  1. Remember making a similar point to Ofgem about their register of ‘vulnerable people’ years ago. Policies and practices make people appear vulnerable. It’s essentially the social model argument all over again, but without even the spurious defence of medical diagnosis.

    However, I think it goes deeper than this. The concept of vulnerability is fundamentally disempowering, used as it is, in a synecdochic way to suggest dependence and passivity- an incapacity for self-determination that socially, politically and culturally removes labelled individuals from the decisions that structure their lives. As used currently it supports a rhetoric that disabled people should be neither seen nor heard, but remain as passive receivers of services, a position that is then easily extended to allow the marginalization of both their voices and those of organizations that represent them.

  2. I agree that use of the word ‘vulnerable’ is gaining popularity and for me perhaps is starting to get over used but I am afraid I don’t agree when referring to disabled people because many are actually vulnerable. Vulnerable to exploitation, hate, discrimination, abuse, bullying, neglect by the State and others, manipulation and being taken advantage of. The use of language is very important for example the Government attacks on what they call the ‘work shy’ now include vulnerable disabled people simply because they draw ‘benefits’ are now skivers and scroungers regardless of need. This is a State attack on the weak, less able or less fortunate and we need to keep reminding people that this is not okay and the word vulnerable is a legitimate and important weapon in their defence.

    • Hi Ian – thanks for taking the time to comment.

      It is of course true that some disabled people are more likely to encounter discrimination, abuse, neglect and that without support some people may fall prey to people who wish to exploit them, financially, sexually and in other ways. That cannot and should not be overlooked and that is not the point of my argument.

      What I question is whether the term vulnerability (a) conveys the true reason why people endure such life conditions and (b) whether in fact the term commands the public support that we assume it does.

      If one considers how the term is commonly deployed it does not capture that idea that vulnerability is in any way socially constructed and hence something that can be socially deconstructed or ameliorated, but rather sites vulnerability as wholly bound within the person. This is important as it has ramifications for public attitudes towards and understanding of disability and for the direction of public policy and practice. Specifically, as I say in the blog, I fear that it contributes to negative attitudes and gears policy towards ‘protection’ at the expense of supporting people’s human rights and freedoms. In the current context the policy question becomes ‘who is or is not deserving of protection, based on an arbitrary test of ‘vulnerability” and this is just a story of ever decreasing circles as the criteria are constantly redefined to weed people out. There is no sense that taking benefits away and sanctioning people itself places people in a vulnerable situation, only that by virtue of x or y condition (defined by government) that a person is intrinsically more or less vulnerable. By colluding in such nonsense we let policy makers off the hook.

      In addition, the evidence from the US regarding public support for children’s rights found that vulnerability seriously depressed public support for policies to support rights – that is to say, it is an idea that may in fact undermine the case for investment in support for disabled people rather than help build it.

      Yes, disabled people are more likely to encounter the things you outline, but my argument is that the notion of ‘vulnerability’ actually stands in the way of building a society in which disabled people are less likely to encounter them.

      Best wishes, Neil

  3. Hiow I’d wish we could all stop using “vulnerable” as a label, as you say. Unfortunately, we who work in social action & inclusion do know well enough when and how to use the word to really indicate those you indeed are dependent & vulnerable in comparison with the average citizen. It is the politicians and large lobby groups who should stop using “vulnerable” with a hollow or manipulative sense, but definitely not us, the social workers.

  4. Love this article. And in lots of ways totally agree. For me it is always about power- who has it, how are they using it ( cf the whole what do we call them” Service User, Customer, Client” debate in social care).

    My problem is… what do use instead… and I can see what ian027 was meaning.

    Interesting one, that’s for sure!

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