The Power of Language: ‘Adults at risk’ rather than ‘Vulnerable adults’, Winter 2024

MVA looks at some of the definitions and terminology surrounding safeguarding adults at risk.

It can be through our verbal or written communication, but the use of our language surrounds our daily lives.

However, be it through social influence, cultural nuances or otherwise, our use of language can be misinterpreted or misunderstood, as our use of language (or definitions) is not often seen as universal.

As a result, whether consciously or unconsciously, we can intensify or worsen existing inequalities.

So, it pays to take time and consider the language we use, as well as think about the impact this could have on those around us; and this can be when we’re at work, or even outside of work when with friends or family.

Language is so Important from a Safeguarding Perspective
In the Charity Sector, safeguarding is often a large aspect that surrounds the work done within organisations, so it is vital to think about the words we use.

It is important because sometimes the words or terms which we use to help get our message across can get misread, so our understanding of the subject may not get through.

By thinking about the definitions that we use, explaining any ‘jargon’ or complex terminology, we can make sure that people understand what safeguarding is, as well as understand what their role is if they have any concerns.

There are various organisations, agencies, professions, and similar bodies that have different ways of understanding and describing needs; so, they may often have and use their own range of terminology and acronyms.

But, if this terminology is not explained, or definitions are not made clear, this can lead to other professionals, and the people and families who charities work with, not feeling empowered or included.

As a result, this may harm any working partnership, and in turn can affect any intended outcomes and wellbeing.

The language used within safeguarding can change. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) developed a helpful guide of the phrases that are commonly used.

‘Vulnerable Adults’ and ‘Adults at Risk’
The term ‘Vulnerable Adult’ came about from the ‘No Secrets’ guidance document on developing and putting in place policies and procedures to protect vulnerable adults.

Written over 25 years ago, it was a commitment from the UK Government of the time to provide greater protection for victims and witnesses.

Eventually introduced at the turn of the Century, it encouraged organisations to work together to protect vulnerable adults from abuse; and so, the definition ‘vulnerable adults’ was used in all policy and procedures for safeguarding.

It was then replaced with the new definition in 2014.

The Care Act of 2014 was (and still is) a very important piece of legislation in adult safeguarding, as it set out how an individual’s care and support needs should be met and defines the responsibilities of local authorities: This includes the NHS.

The act sets out legal responsibilities for the care and support that should be carried out between health and local authorities.

It goes on to define how the two must work in partnership to make sure of the safety and wellbeing of all adults at risk, with an emphasis on prevention rather than response: This ultimately means preventing abuse and neglect from occurring at all.

The key aspect here is that The Act moved away from labelling people as vulnerable adults. Instead, it speaks about the responsibilities that authorities have towards ‘adults with care and support needs.

And so, the Sector should be moving away from the terminology of ‘vulnerable adults’ towards ‘adults at risk of harm’ (usually shortened to adults at risk) in their policies and procedures.

Rules and guidelines that any organisation puts in place should reflect this and include the current definition of ‘adults at risk’ rather than that of ‘vulnerable adults.’

The Care Act 2014 made it clear that abuse of adults relates to their circumstance instead of the characteristics of the people experiencing the harm.

Labelling groups of people (like those with learning disabilities or older people) essentially as ‘vulnerable’ would be seen as discouraging or demeaning.

This is also covered in a Safeguarding Policy Paper from the UK Government’s Office of the Public Guardian.

The language we use may change, this may happen as new laws are put in place, or when the Sector recognise language or definitions that can be improved to represent people more accurately or to cause less harm (or offence).

And so, it is right and fitting that we continue to reflect on the language we use and develop our practice, which helps toward increasing accessibility for all.

And for practitioners supporting adults (and children) using the right language highlights they understand the experiences of those who need our help and may encourage someone to disclose harm and abuse or access support.

The Ann Craft Trust are a national charity who namely work to reduce the risk of abuse to adults. They have resources that provide more information about the definitions and terminology surrounding safeguarding adults at risk, available at their website.

MVA continues its efforts to provide coverage of local and national news and events from the Voluntary and Charity Sector.

If you would like to see coverage of specific news or subject to help your charity, your project, your community group or enterprise, you can get in touch by email at, you can also contact MVA via the website.