What’s wrong with the ‘disadvantaged’?

Exactly that – there’s nothing wrong with them.

However there is a lot wrong with the term ‘disadvantaged’ and it should not be used by widening participation practitioners, and we should challenge other professionals who use this term- whether that be policy makers, politicians or educationalists.

I have four main issues with the term ‘disadvantaged’:

1.       It’s a binary term*- therefore you’re either disadvantaged or you’re not. You wouldn’t call someone like yourself disadvantaged therefore following this logic by default you are advantaged. This then brings with it a whole raft of problems linked to power and inequality.

2.       It reinforces a deficit model– therefore implies there is something missing or something wrong, which is reductive and completely ignores that there may be strengths linked to whatever the disadvantage is perceived to be.

3.       It is a subjective perception– although professionals who use the term disadvantaged often use factual information to define what is meant by it- free school meals for example, or from a low household income- the term disadvantaged itself is not factual but an opinion. It may be a commonly-shared opinion, but one that in my view should be challenged. It also may not be a perception shared by the very people you are trying to describe.

4.       It’s about circumstances not individuals– structural and economic equalities do cause disadvantage, but to call someone disadvantaged places the emphasis on them, rather than highlighting and addressing the cause of the issue. The OED backs me up here and defines disadvantage as: ‘an unfavourable circumstance or condition that reduces the chances of success or effectiveness.’

So what terms should we use instead? That depends on what we’re trying to describe but the following principles should apply:

1.       Ask when trying to describe a group of people that you don’t belong to identify with, why not ask them how they would like to be identified rather than assume? If you can’t do that then…

2.       Be objective think about how you can factually and objectively define the group you are trying to describe, avoid emotive and subjective terms such as vulnerable or hard to reach and opt for more factual terms such as underrepresented, or better still…

3.       Be specific if you are talking about learners on free school meals, then why not say so?

4.       Think would you be happy if someone used that term about you? I know I wouldn’t.

So how can you challenge this? I suggest you lead by example and follow the steps outlined above, and if anyone does use the term challenge them on this and encourage them to think differently. Or if all else fails repeat the phrase back to them using finger quotation marks until they get the jist.

Finally, for anyone interested in exploring this further the following podcast articulates this really well: Word of Mouth – The language of power and inequality in education and leadership – BBC Sounds https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000l0s0

*This idea is supported by a whole raft of post-structural theorists, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-structuralism

Jamie Bytheway

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