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Labels matter

Respecting what people call themselves

It can sometimes be confusing when a group of people start calling themselves something different and ask you to do the same. Language changes and so too does cultural norms and the labels applied to people. Over time, we have seen people with disabilities (as well as other minorities) change what they prefer to be called.

  • Once we used the word “handicapped.” Now many prefer to use the words “person with a disability” so as to put the person before their disability.
  • Once we referred to people as having “shell shock.” This has moved towards “post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” perhaps to be more inclusive people who share the condition who are not survivors of war.
  • Once we referred to people as “retarded.” Now, most will prefer the words “intellectual disabilities,” perhaps due to how many have used “retarded” in a casual derogatory sense.

These changes can be confusing

As an outsider, this can seem overwhelming and confusing. You will probably say the wrong thing and you might even be corrected. I certainly have!

This experience of being corrected can be embarrassing, especially if it happens publicly. But it’s important to realize why you’re being corrected–and why this is more important than your pride.

Often, labels are applied to a group of outsiders and people in the minority, including those with disabilities. Often, these people did not choose what to be called–the labels might be chosen by medical professionals, government, cultural influencers, or society at large. Historically, some labels might have been used to denigrate people or remind them of their “lesser than” status in society.

And so people choose to change these labels.

Giving people the power to identify themselves shifts the power from us to them. This shift is important: this empowers them to transform a label into an identity.

Labels will keep changing

Recently, we’ve been seeing a growing popularity around the word “neurodiversity.” This term aims to be more inclusive of people whether they have autism, ADHD, or obsessive compulsive disorder. Some people prefer to use the term “neurodiversity” while others prefer to be specific about the condition they experience.

And these labels will keep changing. For example:

Currently, it is culturally acceptable to casually use the word “crazy” in order to describe any number of wild and unpredictable things. We call ourselves “crazy;” we call each other “crazy;” everything is just “crazy.” People who experience psychological disorders would be right to take offense to this. So it’s important to be receptive when the time comes to retire this word. And we need to be especially mindful of applying this label in a way that’s hurtful towards people who are different.

Bottom line: be respectful, be empathetic, and seek to call people what they want to be called.

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