Taboo Talk: Can We Really Enable Our Clients?


In the hustle of our busy work lives, it can be easy to forget the power dynamics at play between client and counsellor. Able-Minded's tagline itself ("a place for shameless enablers") is a subtle dig at this topic. Is it ethical to enable or "empower" our clients? Shouldn't we really be helping them to empower themselves?

When I refer to Rehabilitation Counsellors (or any kind of counsellor or allied health worker) as "enablers", here's what I mean:

  • We help people identify what matters to them
  • We help people utilise the resources around (and within) them to take control of their every day lives
  • We help people re-evaluate their preconceptions around what's "possible"

Still, I can see how the idea of "enabling" another person may be problematic:

How can a professional establish the independence of another person? Doesn't the act of enabling another add to that person's dependence on the helper, especially if the enabler is a professional who has the official authority to expand or shrink the life chances of the recipient?

- Barbara Levy Simon, PhD

The thing about being a counsellor, and a Rehabilitation Counsellor in particular, is that we work every day with people who experience significant disadvantage. People with an illness, injury or disability often spend so much time bouncing between professionals who instruct them on the best way to live their lives. How can we be experts when the only real expert on the client is... the client?

Doctor examining a cat

Battle of the Experts?

Rehabilitation Counsellors have a wealth of knowledge about disability and health at their fingertips. Many of us would consider ourselves experts. But there is a different kind of expertise that only a client can possess - because nobody knows them better than they know themselves.

Any amount of expertise we may possess is totally irrelevant unless we seek to apply it in a way that helps a person set and achieve their own prerogatives.

So in my eyes, when we talk about enabling or empowering another person, I see this process as an amalgam of these two very different kinds of expertise. It's a question like this: "How can I help you figure out what matters to you, and help you work with the resources you can use to get there?"

From Dr Levy Simon, again:

Others can only aid and abet in this empowerment process. [We] do so by providing a climate, a relationship, resources and procedural means through which people can enhance their own lives.

I Moustache You a Question...

Man with thick eyebrows and a moustache

Addressing a culturally and socially embedded power imbalance isn't easy - but that doesn't mean we should ignore it. Keep this in mind as you work with your clients. What might you be assuming about them and their needs? How might this limit a person's ability to self-determine?

Before offering advice - what questions might we ask instead?

For more in-depth analysis, check out the article by Dr Levy Simon below.

Your thoughts?

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Reference: Barbara Levy Simon PhD (1987) Rethinking Empowerment, Journal of Progressive Human Services, 1:1, 27-39, DOI: 10.1300/J059v01n01_04

Image Credit: The feature image in this post by Craig Sunter is licensed under CC by 2.0.