This week I became aware of a campaign called “Lose the Label”, a campaign that articulates a parental view that reflects my educational one. The school I work at has the following as one of its absolutes, key to everything it represents and stands for:
We aim to ensure that pupils are respected as individuals and not defined by social, medical or psychological labels.
For us the uniqueness of the child is paramount and using person first language is integral to that, but that is not always the case in Special Schools. I have heard staff in schools reflecting the full range of OfSTED designation refer to children as ‘Biters’, ‘Runners’ and ‘Bouncy Boys’.
The defining of children on the basis of their clinical diagnosis or on the basis of characteristics of their behaviour is deeply worrying and for me contrary to everything that we in Special Education claim to represent. It reduces individuality and the uniqueness that should characterise a Special school education.
When you begin to define children by their diagnosis or their behaviour, rather than who they are, you contribute to a process in which the child loses their singular identify. (Although we also need to be mindful of and respect the fact that some people may choose to define themselves in this way.)
Defining children by their diagnosis or behaviour can lead to a process of presumption in which expected characteristics can become self fulfilling and people begin to see the characteristics before they see the child. On an educational basis this can lead to reduced aspiration based on crude generalisations around the capability of people with a particular diagnosis.
There are also some interesting patterns in the way language is used and how it becomes appropriated by society. If we go back some years, someone with Cerebral Palsy would have been described as a ‘Spastic’. Equally someone with Down’s Syndrome would have been described as being ‘Mongoloid’. Both of these terms were definitive rather than descriptive and both became pejorative in their use and were eventually replaced. Consigned to the dustbin of inappropriate language.
However we are seeing similar patterns today. Some learning disabilities have labels associated with them which are descriptive in their use (Cerebral Palsy) and some are definitive (Autism). People are described as having Cerebral Palsy, whereas they are described as being Autistic. There are some such as Down’s Syndrome which seem to sit somewhere in the middle with general use being descriptive, but some using it as the definitive.
The risk here is that by contributing to the use of labels in the definitive we may be contributing to a slow journey towards the pejorative. The examples around disability that have ended up being used by wider society as terms of abuse are often those which have had a common usage as definitive language. As teachers, by subscribing to this approach and defining our children by the diagnosis, we are contributing to a use of language that continues to surround difference with negative connotations.
We are also at risk of failing to enable the children we work with to maximise their potential, limiting them with presumptions based on label led generalisations.
So lets stick to person first language and lets not fall into the trap of perpetuating stereotypes by defining children by what they have rather than who they are.