The People I Support
Updated: May 17, 2021
When I graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a degree in Social Work, I was talking with my brother-in-law, who was a lawyer, about my work and the clients I supported. He told me that I could not use the word “client” because, as he explained it, the word “client” has a fiduciary aspect to it. He said he could have clients because people chose him to be their lawyer and paid him. I, on the other hand, worked with people who were assigned to me and had no say in how much I got paid, or even whether or not I got paid.
I really liked that! I want to think, believe, operate as if the people I support paid me, and could choose whether or not I did what they paid me to do. I want them to have power and enter a relationship where we contract what outcomes I will deliver. This is, after all, what I was taught in my social work classes. So, for years I operated that way, doing all I could to empower the people I supported so they not only had a voice but had the loudest voice, in how I did my work.
I want to rethink this word, though. The word client is actually a word, according to all of the websites I visited, which comes from Middle English and Latin, specifically the word cluere, which means to hear or obey, and refers to a person being under the legal protection or patronage of another. There is, in all the definitions I looked at, a sense of “being under” as opposed to a sense of “being with” or, to put it more plainly, being equal.
So how do I describe the people I support? They are the people I support. They are the people I work with and the people I work for. I don’t really need one word to describe them, to label them, but if I had to choose one word, it would be this word – colleague. A colleague is someone I work with. Years ago, as I was getting started as a researcher and a writer, a well-known individual (I don’t have permission to use their name and they are now deceased) introduced me to a group of their friends and said, “This is my colleague, Bob.” I felt so empowered to be considered as an equal, it was an amazing feeling.
I am sure that there are reasons not to use that word, which brings me back to this question: why do I need to use one word to describe, to categorize, the people I support? It may take me a few minutes longer, but that is the direction in which I am going. The people I support are the people I support – end of story.