Labels are for Envelopes

I’ve thought about including some of my schoolwork on this blog before, but this time I finally thought I had something worth sharing.  Most of the essays I’ve been writing currently have been about my chosen field of human services, which may not interest very many people.  This essay, however, was written for a course called Human Exceptionalities which covers both people with disabilities and people with special talents or gifts.  I wrote this as a position paper to be sent to a magazine or newspaper for publishing, but I figured I could put it here too.  Mind you, I had a word limit (which I exceeded as it was), so I couldn’t go into the full depth of the subject.  The paper was meant to stimulate your thinking process rather than provide a detailed argument.  So, what are you waiting for?  Put your thinking cap on and start reading!

Labels are for Envelopes

Americans are  a label happy people.  In what could seem like a major effort to categorize everything and everyone, we have labels for everyone from the rich to the poor, from the smart to the slow, from the old to the young.  In particular, we label anything that does not look like, talk like, walk like, or live like we do.  I’m talking about the labels we give people with disabilities.

In the medical community, labeling disabilities is useful to the point of necessity.  Until a person is labeled, the doctors cannot give treatment.  I compare it to addresses on letters to tell the postal service where a particular envelope is supposed to go.  Labeling a disability gives doctors a quick way to know what to do for the person and what referrals to make.  In society, however, these same labels too often distract us.

The address label on an envelope tells the post office where to send it.  But does the recipient think twice about what is on the outside of the envelope?  Of course not!  The recipient is much more concerned with what is inside.  The labels we give people with disabilities should be the same way.  Labels for disabilities tell us about the challenges the person is facing, but we should be more worried about what is inside the person than what their outside looks like.

Children especially notice differences in the people around them.  I remember the first time I saw someone who had lost their hand.  As a young girl, I almost couldn’t keep from staring across the restaurant at him.  The man acted completely normal, however, and I soon realized that the missing hand only made life a little more difficult for him; it didn’t affect who he was as a person.  This introduction to physical disabilities prepared me to accept people with all kinds of disabilities.

Over my twenty-odd-years of life, I have known several people on the Autism Spectrum, a girl who couldn’t walk due to spinal issues, her brother who is blind, a boy with cystic-fibrosis, and others who deal with another disability or disorder of some kind.  In my family, we did not define these friends by their disability.  We focused on the similarities rather than on the differences.  I wasn’t always comfortable with people with disabilities, but that could often be true of my relationships with completely normal people.  I could see the person as it shone from beneath the label.

Children learn to label disabilities from two sources, first from their parents and later from teachers and other students at school.  I learned to value people from my parents, and since I was homeschooled, I did not understand until much later about the labels people with disabilities have sometimes endured.  If parents could all teach their children to disregard the labels and look for the precious letter inside of individuals and if teachers would reinforce this, I think children would begin to get a new picture of disability, one that reflects reality.

In a culture insistent on teaching diversity, why don’t we take the chance to train our children to judge people by their character and not by their appearance?  Whether they are slow to comprehend academic work , use a wheelchair, have a different skin color, or talk with an accent does not really matter in friendships.  Friendships are about relationships with other people, and the important thing in relationships is choosing to have them with people who will help you be a better person.

People with disabilities have to overcome a lot of things, from the social realm (pity, mocking, or disgust) to the physical realm (buildings without ramps or elevators) to the academic realm (not being able to differentiate between letters, not being able to hear the teacher, etc).  When people, old or young, work hard to overcome an obstacle, it makes them better people and teaches them worthwhile lessons that they can pass on to the rest of us.  If we could only teach this to our children, we might see the revolutionizing of our society to be more friendly and accepting of people who are different.

Labels do make a difference.  Cass Irvin, editor for The Disability Rag, wrote in 1982, “the language that we use defines and shapes our perceptions of ourselves.  What is more important still is that our language shapes society’s perception of [people with disabilities]” (pp. xv-xvi).  Although Irvin wrote that almost thirty years ago, her words are still true today and provide a thought provoking mental bone – how can we define disability in such a way that our children will learn to value people and disregard the labels?

References
Hardman, M. L., Drew, C. J., & Egan, M. W. (2011). Human exceptionality: School, community, and family (10th ed.). Australia: Wadsworth.
Irvin, C. (1982). Preface. In B. Shaw (Ed.), (1994). The ragged edge: The disability experience from the pages of the first fifteen years of the disability rag (pp. xiv-xvi). Louisville, KY: Avocado Press.
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