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An introduction to social work in Wales
An introduction to social work in Wales

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4.1 Disadvantage and discrimination 

Social workers may have to use their professional judgement to intervene in people’s lives. One of the reasons is because an individual may be deemed vulnerable in some way and may even need some decisions made on his or her behalf. It is important to note that this idea of ‘vulnerability’ is often challenged by people using services and groups representing them on the basis that this term does not acknowledge people’s strengths and emphasises only one negative aspect of their lives.

Figure 4

Activity 7: Vulnerable people

Timing: Allow 15 minutes

Think about who you would include under the category of ‘vulnerable people’ within society and why. You may be able to draw upon your own work experience, or your experiences of receiving services.


People who receive services from social workers include children, older people, people with physical, mental or learning impairments, people who are unwell or caring for dependants, people who have drug or alcohol problems, and offenders. This is quite a lengthy list, but does the fact that these people receive a service from social services mean they are ‘vulnerable’? This question is difficult to answer partly because of the different ways in which the word ‘vulnerable’ is understood. Does it, for example, include people who, despite being able to understand their needs and make decisions for themselves, would be at risk of physical or emotional harm if they did not receive services? To what extent do you think that vulnerability is simply the result of social disadvantage or lack of opportunity?

We are all users of health and/or social care services at some point in our lives – and it may be that changes in social policy make us more vulnerable at particular points in time. For example, someone with long-term mental health problems may be able to manage well with a routine that includes attendance at daytime activities at a local college. If this provision is closed down due to funding cuts, then their mental health may worsen. Social workers’ ability to provide help for people who need it will depend on current national and local policy decisions about who is eligible for support. Currently, assessments about who can and cannot have services are informed by considering the extent to which individuals’ needs fit with local criteria about eligibility, which in turn have to reflect current legislation in their nation. The forthcoming Social Services and Wellbeing Act (2014) (expected to be implemented in 2016), however, promises to bring a different approach to doing social work, in which social workers and the people they work with will work far more closely together in ‘co-production’ in seeking solutions. Recognising people’s strengths and preferences, with professionals and citizens working together as equal partners, in all aspects of service development and delivery, it may be argued, may more effectively result in outcomes that matter to people who need care and support.