No: A Vocabulary Makeover


A parent requests the disability supports a family member needs. A person on fixed income applies for increased rent subsidy to match increased expenses. Access to mental health services is required. "No" is a word heard repeatedly by people accessing social assistance.
As I waited in line to pick up a cheque that could not be mailed because of the current postal strike/lock out in Canada, I heard many forms of "no". I believe it is time for a vocabulary makeover:
  1. That's not our mandate: This response tells me the service provider is system oriented, not client oriented. The potential client is dehumanized as their needs are externalized into a checklist. It is emotionally easier to say no to a piece of paper than a person. For the applicant, it is challenging to not take the rejection personally.
  2. Your friend gave you the wrong information: This typifies the mistrust service providers can develop towards their potential clients. It also undermines the social support of friends - especially when friends can be as hard to find as disability resources.
  3. Not matching the language ability of the person requesting services: Sometimes technical jargon creates barriers. An individual striving to communicate in a language not his own was met with the words transaction, timeline and review. Already overwhelmed, he left with no assistance and greater confusion.
  4. That's all we can do: Defensiveness. Again the focus is on the agency and not the client. There seems to be an assumption the person in need should be penitent for having needs. The tone of the reply treated the request as an imposition.
  5. I can't give you that information: This hardens the us/them mindset. Another reminder of who lives on which side of the haves and have-nots.
Now take a deep breath and read my proposed makeover for each situation above.
  1. I can see your needs are significant. Let's see where we can work together: Validated needs and teamwork add dignity. Service agencies participating in community networking produce referrals to other services.
  2. I'm thankful you are connected to supportive people. The client came, which can be the biggest hurdle. The service provider can clarify any misinformation without pointing fingers.
  3. Provide written information in simple vocabulary: As a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder, being given a flowchart of the application process adds time for me to digest the instructions. Contact information for further assistance for each step provides hope during wait periods and increases the likelihood that the application will be completed correctly the first time around.
  4. I know what we can provide isn't enough to meet your needs. I wish we could offer you more: Needs are complex. I don't know of an agency which meets every need. Yet each strand added increases the strength of fabric.
  5. I value the confidentiality of the personal information our system requires you to share. It is hard to tell a stranger personal history and financial information to qualify for programming. It is reassuring to experience confidentiality affirmed.
I understand that budgets are stretched and wait lists are long. Sometimes "No" is the only response that fits a service agency's policy. However, I believe "No" can be said differently - in a way that lowers institutional defensiveness and restores dignity to those with the courage to ask for help.
What other "No" makeovers would you add?

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