Is Co-production Fulfilling Our Hopes?
February 5, 2015

When applying for a job recently I needed to talk about co-production. I defined this as the genuine collaboration and mutual respect between disabled people and professionals. I elaborated, but those defining phrases “disabled people” and “professionals” bugged me.

They seemed so inadequate and trivial. They don’t capture the real position of either group or the difficulty and importance of the relationship between them.

I don’t normally spend much time publicly speaking about language in the disability context as I think people generally give it far too much attention to the detriment of attitudes and action. I have preferences about using neutral language and know about debates and history around words like “handicap”, “invalid” e.t.c. I’m interested in why people choose to describe themselves as either “disabled” or “with disabilities”. These are important issues but I think they should largely be confined to internal discussions among disabled people. When we give too much public space to them we allow people to feel like they’re achieving something by reworking leaflets while keeping their attitudes and procedures firmly entrenched.

I finally had my fill of the “correct language” meal when a fellow visually impaired person told me I mustn’t call him, or myself, “visually impaired” because it was offensive. Apparently to say someone is “visually impaired” is to mean they are ugly and the correct term is “sight impaired”.

Actually I suspect saying “visually impaired” might have several meanings, including that the view of someone is blocked, depending on the context. It’s probably all wound up with the subject and the object of the sentence. But I’m no linguist. And anyway – offended? Really? All I can say is if you’ve made it to your thirties as a disabled person and you choose to use your remaining shreds of energy thinking about how such a mundane phrase offends you and preaching at other disabled people to mend their ways, you must be leading a rather limited life and perhaps your concern would be better redirected to that issue.

So it was unusual for me to give so much thought to whether I was using the “right” words when I was discussing co-production. That’s partly because I really wanted the work. But more than that, the co-production endeavour encapsulates so much of what it means to be disabled and to seek fundamental change.

Co-production is the process whereby citizens and decision makers work together, sharing power and knowledge to produce policies and practises. Citizens are involved in designing the policies which affect them and everybody becomes an agent for change instead of purely a service provider or a service user. That’s the idea anyway. You can read more about it on the Social Care Institute for Excellence website.

This has been the whole point of the disability movement – to assert our rights to freedom over our own lives; to build practises which work for us instead of on us and do things with us not to us. If co-production is a culmination of fifty years’ campaigning it’s a radical departure whose participants seem to deserve fuller descriptions than “disabled people” and “professionals” with all the assumptions tied up in those words. Disabled people can be professionals, whether by work role, experience or behaviour. Equally the contributions of professionals who want to be changemakers are much more precious than the sum of their qualifications or job descriptions.

But I mustn’t dwell on this. Words are symbols of our thoughts, envelopes for our emotions, ammunition for our chosen weapons. They’re nothing without our directorship. Is co-production the answer it’s supposed to be? Is it a new direction? Or a new label for the old structures?

Like many others I’ve worked to get more choice and control for disabled people. I’ve also had “choice” and “control” thrown back at me as justifications for cutting my support hours. More than once I’ve been informed that keeping my support at the same level would reduce my choice and control and prevent me from living independently.

That was the professional assessment. And that’s one example of why, on the occasions when co-production does live up to its name, it can be an important vehicle for change. If the people who have the power to cut care and those who live the consequences of those cuts can produce work together which they both find satisfying, that’s got to be some kind of progress.

The co-production I’ve been part of was a bumpy ride and it was always going to be. I’ll try my best to ensure that whatever I’m involved in next lives up to its name. If that’s too ambitious, I at least hope to prevent co-production chasing choice and control down the hill of misappropriation.

I’d be really interested to hear about other people’s experiences of working in co-production.