Origin of term 'consumer' to refer to developmentally disabled people?
September 6, 2005 5:59 AM   Subscribe

What is the origin/history of the use of the term "consumer" to refer to developmentally disabled people? My wife and I have come across this only with the past 2-3 years, and my search for clues is complicated by how common the term is, and its multiple meanings.

It sounds like some kind of weird doublespeak - I thought my wife was joking when she first mentioned that she had heard it used with that meaning. Here's a recent example: this newspaper articles states 'Twelve bakers (or adult consumers as they are called at the agency) are currently employed at the bakery part time, assisted by agency staffers and volunteers.' Wikipedia gives a possible hint in the definition for 'patient'.... but I'm still curious.
posted by chr1sb0y to Writing & Language (12 answers total)
I've never heard "consumer," but perhaps the newspaper used the wrong word. I have frequently heard "client" used in an agency setting. "Client" is actually an excellent word choice, because it is not derogative and accurately represents the relationship.
posted by MrZero at 6:08 AM on September 6, 2005

Best answer: I'm a mental health professional, and I'm not a big fan of the term, but I understand the use of it. Recall that mental health services have for most of their existence been non-voluntary. During the second half of the 20th century there was a movement to recognize that these services should be voluntary, that having a mental illness or mental disability did not obviate one's rights as a human being, and that patients should be understood as consumers to make their voluntary right-laden status explicit.

Here is a link to a history of some of this movement. [pdf]

Here's the Google html of the same pdf.

Search for: mental health consumer rights movement

or some variation thereof.
posted by OmieWise at 6:10 AM on September 6, 2005

posted by OmieWise at 6:11 AM on September 6, 2005

I suspect the word "consumer" is meant to show respect, to show that disabled people receiving assistance are consumers of a service, not recipients of charity. A consumer can take his business elsewhere. A supplicant cannot.

As with the word "client," the use of the word "consumer" is meant (I guess) to show a relationship of equality.

It's not true of course. But whether 'politically correct' terminology helps or hurts is a much discussed subject I don't want to get into. Other than to say there is merit to both sides of the argument.
posted by mono blanco at 6:30 AM on September 6, 2005

patients should be understood as consumers to make their voluntary right-laden status explicit.

How does the word accomplish that? farm animals are consumers of feed (no, I am not suggesting any inference about the disabled.) Those animals cedrtainly do not have a voluntary rights-laden status.

What does consumer do that client doesn't do better?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:45 AM on September 6, 2005

I'm not a big fan of client either, but at the time consumer came into vogue, client wasn't used. Patient was used, or inmate. Consumer was thought to suggest a user of services, and was understood in this context not as an animal reference (which I think you know) but as a parallel to retail shopping consumer.
posted by OmieWise at 7:07 AM on September 6, 2005

OmieWise writes "but at the time consumer came into vogue, client wasn't used."

By which I meant that consumer and client are both choices of the same rights movement.
posted by OmieWise at 7:40 AM on September 6, 2005

I never really got into the whole "client" term, I always preferred to just refer to them as "the people I work with."
posted by Pollomacho at 8:01 AM on September 6, 2005

My mother's social services agency uses client. To me consumer seems an oddity, like Target calling its customers guests. But the impulse is probably to have a constant reminder to avoid paternalism -- what does this consumer need rather than what do we do with this patient. (Patient also tends to imply a curative model.)

It's probably related that years ago my company-internal computer help desk was retitled client services; the word user was banished.
posted by dhartung at 12:16 PM on September 6, 2005

It seems to me that "consumer" is being used as a synonym for "customer" even though it might not fit so well.
posted by mendel at 1:26 PM on September 6, 2005

I just finished my predoctoral internship in psychology in Memphis. One of my experiences involved doing CIT training followed by a ride-along with a CIT Officer in the North Precinct of Memphis. CIT stands for Crisis Intervention Team, and it describes police officer who are trained to work with people who are mentally unstable at the time of the police intervention. For example, if a person was suicidal and standing on a bridge or schizophrenic and waking up the neighborhood, etc. This kind of model is actually known as "The Memphis Model" and has been adopted in countries all over the world. A Google search reveals several police departments that use this model.

Although I was very familiar with the term "client" with regard to people utilizing mental health services, this was the first time I'd heard the term "consumer." "Client" is a term preferred by Applied Psychologists since it is medical doctors that see "patients."

I could be wrong, but my guess is that the use of the term "consumer" is linked to police work because it is more PC than the term "perpetrator" or "perp." If someone is innocent until proven guilty, I assume that police officers could get into loads of trouble using "perp" too freely.

I actually blogged about my night with the police officer, if you're interested in reading about it. Part 1. Part 2.
posted by abbyladybug at 6:24 PM on September 6, 2005

I participated in a literature review of health literature on "client-centred care". It gives more information, including what the thinking behind it is in different fields (including medical use, nursing, physiotherapy, hospitals, etc. - I had to read the hospital literature. Very boring.)

But if you want to read more the PDF is online here
posted by jb at 8:42 PM on September 6, 2005

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