What’s in a name?



I have worked with Sunrise2Sunrise Community Care since day zero… or earlier. But that’s a great story for another day. In the last 2 short years I made the continental tour of Sunrise2Sunrise’ office- first writing the website, then Client Service Manager, Quality and Compliance Manager, Support Worker, Editor and Team Leader. There’s a good chance a few of you might have heard from me. Ravi never let me call myself the So when Sunrise2Sunrise has to get the word out I’m the man for the job. I received my Cert IV in Disability in 2015 and am currently studying a Cert IV in Training and Assessment. I have a passion in advocating people living with a disability being able to access and be a part of their communities and the protection and advancement of Disability Support Workers.

What’s in a name?

Client, Participant, Resident, Student. These are a small example of the names that have been given to people who have accessed the NDIS since I started working in disability support. In 2017 during the initial stages of the NDIS the wisdom of the day was to call NDIS users “clients. Today those same folks have had more name changes than Prince had in the 90s. Sunrise2Sunrise has since adopted the term “customer”.

So, apart from checking that I’m paying attention, what is the purpose of change? As George Carlin put it “ … because we do think in language and so the quality of our thoughts and ideas could only be as good as the quality of our language.”

What’s in a name is important. Maybe none more so than when discussing disability. History has taught us that language, although it holds no physical weight, is a terrible tool to exclude people. Words that I would never consider using were standard medical terms to label people. As those words were replaced with kinder, more gentle diagnosis it’s important to remember the adage about good intentions and the road. Therefore our language would evolve multiple times over the next 60 years matching societies understanding of disability- the medical model’s transition to a support model.

As disability’s role in the community graduated from “don’t talk about it” to asylums then group homes and now the NDIS, so to must our language to full realise the benefits of an inclusive society.

In 2017 I was taught to refer to NDIS users as clients. The implication being that the Support Worker offers a service. Good intention, but the sterile and top- down connotations were noted. This terminology was quickly replaced by 2019 with “participant” someone who by choice to be engaged in the NDIS. Participant was seen as a mutual meeting ground between providers and realising the objective of choice and control. In attempts to even the playing field there were concerns that the NDIS has not achieved its intended goals.

In 2021 growing discontent with the proposed Independent Assessments (a subject for another day) the idea of participation in a program that was overly complicated and bureaucratic may be idealistic. Again, good intentions but participation doesn’t always accurately described the lived experiences of people that live and rely on support. Participation describes a percentage of NDIS users’ experience but does not account for all.

Today we use the term “customer”. Fulfilling the aim of person centred active support, a customer centred approach to support redistributes the often discussed perceived balance of power to the person receiving support. “The customer is always right” is an interesting analogue- critics of the NDIS (of which there is many) often note the inflexibility of what is considered reasonable support, and the fact that this rigidity means that the person’s specific needs cannot be addressed under a rigid system. It is hoped that standardising a customer centric attitude empowers Support Workers carrying out the NDIS mandate are guided by not just the needs but the wants of their customers.

“Actions speak louder than words” one could argue. This is true, but also true is that every action is informed by words verbal or non-verbal. The greatest feeling you will ever know is being able to communicate with someone that has been labelled as unable to communicate. Trust me on that.

Words have power behind them. Morgan Freeman’s made a whole career out of their delivery. Nelson Mandela healed the world with words. Anne Frank showed the world at the worst with words. Johnny Cash definitely did words the best.

Client, Participant, Customer- all refer to the same person over time. Their importance lies in the relationships they foster.

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