Not vulnerable

December 2020, Richard Banks, Residential Forum member, considers how the language of personal frailty can be used as cover for a hostile social and economic environment.

Poorly chosen words or phrases can dehumanise people and lead to the use of labels to define people by supposed deficits.  ‘Vulnerable’ has become an example. Vulnerable has been used during the Coronavirus epidemic to define people as somehow needy when really family and their community need them.  

There has been a similar use of language in relation to people who live in care homes – they are all labelled ‘dependent’.  This is then linked to older people being a burden and the notion of a demographic time bomb. The banning of visits from or to people who live in a care home has served to underline how we ostracise people away from family and community.  It has been suggested that the ban was triggered by the concerns of insurance companies about liability than actual safe infection control or good care practice.  More knowledgeable readers of this will be able to correct or confirm that.

The labelling of people as vulnerable was promoted by the Coronavirus Act 2020 [1], which has downgraded and curtailed disabled people’s rights and used the term ‘vulnerable’ to justify that. This has led to a range of instances where disabled people and older people have had their right to make decisions about themselves taken away from them using the excuse that they are vulnerable.   One of the more extreme examples of this has been where people are pressured to accepted with little or no consultation or assumed to having agreed to Do Not Resuscitate (DNAR) notices. A Care Quality Commission interim report 3/12/20 confirms many of these concerns[2]

How the word ‘vulnerable’ has been used during the pandemic has started a regression of public attitudes to thinking of some people as somehow deserving of charity.  Years of slow progress on disability rights and even slower progress on ageism it at risk of being lost.  People with disabilities, those with so called underlying conditions and older people (defined by some as over 65s) are described as vulnerable. That description as vulnerable is then used to make people ‘other’, categorising them into a labelled group. That then excuses some people to feel free to pontificate on what might or might not be best for them or even to suggest that they might be expendable for some idea of ‘’contributing to the overall economic well-being of the nation.[3]

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Thankfully there are a number groups pushing back on all this.  One is the Valuable not Vulnerable project that builds on the work on the ‘People Doing it for Themselves Project ‘ by Community Catalysts

The Valuable not Vulnerable project will be co-produced and will focus on Covid-19 and people who are shielded. It will do two things:

  • Act as a catalyst to unlock people’s passion, skills and talents to help them actively contribute to their community, while they are physically distanced. Finding and connecting with people to help them plan and act on their strengths
  • Work with people to actively challenge and influence local perceptions, narratives and policy, by capturing stories and using them in social and mainstream media – to shift thinking away from people’s vulnerabilities towards people’s assets and strengths.

More information here


[1] https://dls.org.uk/coronavirus-act-threatens-care-for-disabled-people/

[2] https://www.cqc.org.uk/news/releases/cqc-finds-combination-increasing-pressures-rapidly-developing-guidance-may-have

[3] An idea with links to Jonathan Swift’s 1729   ‘ Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to their Parents, or the Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick’  A satirical essay that suggests impoverished Irish people might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food to rich gentlemen and ladies.

Published by Residential Forum

The Residential Forum is to promote the achievement of high standards of care and support for children and adults living in residential care and nursing homes, supported housing, residential schools and colleges, hospices and hostels. It contributes to improving the quality of service to the public. Members of the Forum are people of standing and experience drawn from the public, private and voluntary sectors, as well as some who can speak for service users and carers.

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