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Saturday, 20 July 2019

Words, names and labels

I should start this post by confessing that I don't have a set of thoughts with a conclusion yet. This is just a topic that has been raised recently at work, in the news and as I have pondered life.

Words


A blackboard with "Words have power" written in large letters.


There are almost as many sayings out there as there are words. There seems to be universal acceptance that words are powerful. The words we use have impact. They can change lives and situations for good or bad.

I think most religious texts have some reference to the power of words. The Bible has much to say about the power of the tongue. It compares it to a forest, set on fire by a small spark. Just one word can trigger a powerful reaction.

I also found a Korean proverb, "Words have no wings but they can fly a thousand miles." I guess that was written before the Internet made it explicitly true.

Names


Photo of a pair of chopsticks with three pebbles

Say it with me. We all know the rhyme.

Sticks and stones
May break my bones
But words will never hurt me.

I'd like to use a rude word here (or several) but I'll exercise a modicum of self-control. But really? What a load of rubbish!

In days gone by, and even today in some cultures, names are very important. Babies are given a name that means something and is an indication of what their parents are hoping and praying for. I have a friend in Finland who had a baby and the name they gave him means 'king'. This is not a child who should grow up feeling insignificant! When I was at school, I had a friend called Helen. We looked up what our names meant in a book and it said Helen meant 'horse'. I hope she found out one day that the Greek meaning is really 'shining light'. My name means 'overcomer'. I wonder whether I was given it prophetically or whether actually, we subconsciously become what we are called.

When I was a child, somebody gave me a nickname. They called me it most of the time. I had no idea what it meant but something should have warned me that it wasn't kind. One day, I did something really stupid! I asked them what it meant and why they kept calling me it. Their reply caused more damage than any physical injury could ever do. Their words hung over me like a dark cloud for years and years. Even now, on my darkest days, those words come back and I have to fight their power and not allow them to destroy me. Names last... maybe forever.

Labels

This is where work came in. I was doing a piece of work and half way through, a particular phrase (not one I devised) was changed. Unfortunately, this phrase came up about a million times throughout the piece and even 'find and replace' wasn't great at finding them all. I could see the importance of the change of wording but it kind of niggled me a bit too. Obviously, I can't tell you what it was, or I'd have to kill you (and that might be quite a lot of killing) which would make me a murderer. Well actually, no... it would make me a person who has committed murder.

This is the idea behind labelling theory. There is a difference between a murderer and a person who has committed murder. The first labels the person, as though their action is part of who they are. The latter sees them as a person first, and thus (love that word) allows them to change their choices and desist from committing further murders.

Okay murder is quite strong. Let's scale it back to children. I do some work with Care for the Family. They very much promote the idea, in parenting, that you criticise the behaviour, not the child. So, 'that was a naughty thing to do', rather than 'you are so naughty!' Pointing out that the behaviour was wrong is more constructive than labelling the child as naughty. Because if I'm naughty, I should probably focus my energy on doing more naughty things.

I have a lot of thoughts swimming around my head on this. Going beyond the child example and thinking about crimes and big stuff, there is every reason to avoid labelling a person, and giving them the freedom to change their life choices... but what about the victims? If my child was killed by a drunk driver by a person who was driving whilst under the influence of alcohol, then calling them by a label might validate my pain more. It might make me feel like my child mattered more. I might not care too much about whether the person felt labelled or what their future life may become. After all, my child's life didn't matter that much to them! (No.... it's just an example! My kids are fine!)

Labelling isn't good or helpful but sometimes I want to label. Hmmm!

Language used to describe disability

Let's switch to disability-related language. It's quite fashionable, at the moment, to use person-first language. So we talk about a person living with dementia, rather than a dementia sufferer, etc.

Am I a disabled person or a person with a disability? Am I a wheelchair user or a person who uses a wheelchair?

Honestly, I don't really care. I am a disabled person. I am a wheelchair user. The labelling theory above, is about the ability to change... to not be defined by a label. Depending on how you interpret words like disabled, I don't think it applies in the same way. Short of a miracle, my situation is not likely to change. The label doesn't make me disabled. It's just a description.

My bigger issue is what people hear, see, think, etc when they encounter disability. Do they interpret disability as:

  • weakness?
  • fragility?
  • incompetence?
  • dependence?
  • defeat?
Or do they see:
  • resilience?
  • problem-solving?
  • creativity?
  • determination?
  • patience?
  • tolerance?
  • persistence?
I was thinking about the difference between those who have known me since before my injury and those who have only ever known the disabled me. These two groups of people treat me (on the whole) very differently. My family and old friends never treat me as some fragile person who needs to be protected and looked after. They don't assume that I am incapable of doing things. They don't talk to me as though I might break. They laugh at me, do banter, challenge me, expect the best of me and, when I'm having a bad day, they encourage me to do something positive rather than sympathising with my inevitable demise.

Sure, there are things I can't do. Steps are always going to be a serious challenge! Obstacles and narrow doorways, aisles and the like are often a stopping point but really?!! In this generation, that is something that needs changing, not accepting! Heat, hunger and tiredness... well they were my nemesis long before I injured my spine. 

Don't call me...

This is a highly personal list, and different for all, but don't use the following words to describe me:
  • handicapped (unless you are referring to my lack of golfing prowess)
  • wheelchair-bound
  • crippled (though 'crip' might be okay for extremely close family/friends)
  • severely disabled - get real! I struggle to stand, walk and pee, and my hands shake but there are worse things. I've told you a million times not to exaggerate!

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