Words can build or destroy as scripture says. We tend to use words to destroy more often than not. Even when we use words in education, those same words meant to benefit tend to get twisted and bent toward destruction. Labels in education have been developed out of necessity to explain the problems that need to be dealt with to improve learning. Society uses labels, too, to determine who needs assistance. The theory of the use of these words is good, but the reality is that often the words are used to trap certain populations in a box. The box may be different depending on the label, but the result is the same. The box can become a trap.
I don’t have a problem with labels as long as they state simple facts and not attitudes, and as long as the words are only to identify and prescribe. Identify the problem and suggest the solution. Labels that are too general are limited in their use. “Special needs” is a label we put on the general population of students who need extra help or attention. It can include everyone from the severely, developmentally delayed to the gifted. It is a label only useful in identifying that a student is part of that population that needs some amount of extra attention, as opposed to the regular education student. Beyond that, it does nothing to identify the problem or suggest the solution. Autistic, dyslexic, auditory processing disordered, deaf, blind, and deafblind are more useful labels that identify the set of possible issues that need to be considered when prescribing corrective methods to improve learning. These labels are specific enough to do what is needed: identify the problem and suggest the solution.
So, why do labels have such a negative reputation? It isn’t the label. It is the attitude that gets assigned with the label that is the problem. Some professionals, and even some parents, use the labels as excuses to say a student can’t learn or must be taught a specific way regardless of the needs and abilities of the student. Or, it is an excuse not to discipline and teach the student proper behavior. The label then can become a box that they can’t get out of easily, hindering the learning process. Labels should only be a starting place to suggest certain characteristics that need to be considered as the teaching plan is developed. All children learn differently, even children with similar issues.
It isn’t just academia that distorts the views of labels. Society has done so as well, and often very cruelly. “Mentally retarded”, meaning a mind that has been retarded or slowed in progress, became “retard” with a cruel connotation for person who is unintelligent, uncool, and worthless. As we try to regulate ourselves to prevent these negative attachments to our labels, we change the labels in an attempt to be politically correct. Mental retardation becomes mentally handicapped, but a negative view gets passed along with the name, so it becomes developmentally delayed. Hopefully, some improvement is made if we educate enough along with the name change.
Sometimes the label produced by the government or educational institution or whatever is actually worse than before. The group we are trying to help dislikes the label even more as in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing who became labeled hearing impaired. Instead of a simple, non-judgmental statement of fact such as deaf or hard of hearing, the label now implies brokenness or lack of ability. The deaf and hard of hearing generally do not like the label of hearing impaired thrust upon them by the government and Deaf advocacy organizations. It seems to say that they are incapable of doing or even being besides just unable to hear. Handicapped is another label that came out of political correctness, but wasn’t well-received. Again, it seemed to say that the person is “unable to do”. It was perceived by many as saying the person doesn’t measure up and never will be able to equal others. Disabled became the new term.
Personally, and just to emphasize my point, I see the same problem with disability as opposed to handicapped, but even some of the disabled seem to miss the negativity here. I have seen some verbally attack people who refer to them as handicapped instead of the newer, more politically correct term of disabled. Well, disabled means ”not able”. I feel I am quite able in many ways to do many things. I can’t see, and I can’t hear, but I am still able to do many things. Those persons who are able and not disabled aren’t able to do everything, so why does my lack of ability to physically see and physically hear mean that I am labeled “disabled”? If I had to prefer or choose from these two labels, I would choose “handicapped” because it is more fitting to my rules of what a label should be. It simply states a fact without implying more. I am handicapped by the fact that I can’t physically see or hear. My favorite definition of handicap is simply “a hindrance”. Yep, that is how I see my inability to physically see and hear. It is just a hindrance. I need a little help to participate on a more even playing field referring to another definition. The word “handicap” doesn’t seem to say that I am unable to do. It just implies that I have a hindrance to my performance and need to be given some advantages to help equal or improve my chances on the field with others. That certainly doesn’t say I am not able to perform. Yep, I like handicapped better.
Now, I am not going to petition Congress or yell at a few of those who are non-disabled or non-handicapped about their choice of words. That is pointless. Words are just words, ultimately. It is my attitude that determines the effect of those words. I just hope that you will learn to mind your attitudes when using labels, too. People who have learning issues, physical issues, mental issues, or emotional issues can perform. There are things they can’t do, but there are a lot of things that they can do just like other people. They just may need a few more advantages or a little more help to perform more equally alongside others on the field. The disabled are very able! We just have a handicap. Let’s use the labels for their intended purposes. Realize our abilities which are many; then focus on helping us to overcome and lessen our hindrances.helping us to overcome and lessen our hindrances.