Sticks and stones …and labels

By Tom Dooling

Summer 2011

It is incredible how many different words are used to label people with disabilities, especially people with cognitive and learning disabilities. Over hundreds of years, well-meaning professionals, reporters and writers have invented new words, or drawn from foreign languages, to find labels that don’t carry stigmas.

Sadly, the new words soon acquire as unpleasant and nasty a meaning in general conversation as the ones they replaced. And interesting enough, many indigenous languages don’t have a word for it.

It is a challenge to write about this topic, incidentally, without using any of those words – but it is possible, which is important. There have been several reasons for trying to find descriptive terminology that doesn’t imply a value judgment, and as a lawyer and as a student of mental health counseling, I’m aware of the apparent need of professionals for specific words with specific meanings to categorize disabilities.

Whether one is concerned about education, treatment or simply understanding behavior, professionals like the convenience of a single shorthand word that provides agreed-upon information about the person being discussed.

For example, embezzlers, arsonists and robbers are all felons, undesirable criminals, but have completely different characteristics (and there are only about four words for a firebug instead of hundreds for a person with learning disabilities).

As a former president of the United States supposedly said – apparently with some surprise – “words mean things.” Unfortunately, labels – words that purport to define a human being in three syllables or less – don’t convey much essential information.

Calling a muscular man a hunk, or a curvaceous woman a babe, may ignore the fact that the man is the Governor of California, or the woman the National Security Advisor. All labels do is compress people out of all recognition into tiny conceptual boxes, as though finding a single word for “what” someone is substitutes for the complexity of “who.”

Another danger of using labels is that it allows superficial and unnecessary distinctions, like the 19th century differentiation of mulattos, quadroons and octaroons. To most of us today, these words are unknown and sound like ingredients in an obscure recipe rather than the completely pointless attempt to distinguish individual’s legal status on the basis of their ancestry.

As I have grown older, I’ve become more and more aware that I don’t need labels to define myself (Caucasian, senior citizen, for instance, or more unkind words referring to my thinning hair and thickening waistline) or anybody else. If we stop using labels, we are challenged to talk – and think – about people in a much deeper and kinder way.

Mental health, counseling, therapy and legal professionals, who use words as the tools of our trade, should take the lead in avoiding using labels, even People First labels (as in person with bipolar disorder) except when we’re talking about the disorder itself as relevant to the conversation.

Former Disability Rights Montana’s staff attorneys Tom Dooling provided legal support to both the Abuse and Neglect, and the Developmental Disability service units.   

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