The dangers of labels

The dangers of labels

Mike Oliver on the readiness of non-disabled people to create labels, the wrong assumptions which may underpin them, and the perils of us meekly accepting them.

The Oscar Pistorius trial has been adjourned for a month for him to undertake a psychiatric assessment. It comes after an expert witness suggested that he was suffering from an illness called hypervigilant anxiety disorder which she claimed was a consequence of the removal of his lower limbs in early childhood and the physical and emotional trauma associated with the operation, leading to feelings of increased vulnerability.

Now I’m no expert in mental illness and I’m not commenting on this specific case, but the same label could potentially be applied to all disabled people in that the disabling barriers we all face make us more vulnerable in many situations than anyone else.

I am aware that I was more risk averse when bringing up our children than their mother ever was and I always found it emotionally difficult when they were doing potentially dangerous things like climbing trees. I would often have to stop myself from interfering in their games and I have no doubt that my anxieties around my children taking risks could have been labelled ‘hypervigilant anxiety disorder’.

But I was also more risk averse than other children when I was growing up, prior to becoming disabled. As children we would often play in a disused chalk pit. The short way in was via a narrow rocky path we called the camel’s hump with dangerous drops on each side. The long way was via the main entrance which had been used when it was a working chalk pit. My mates always chose the camel’s hump route while I always went the longer and safer way in.

So in my case, it would be impossible to confidently assert that my anxieties around my children were caused by me becoming disabled. I only learned later that taking past events and interpreting them in the light of current circumstances is what academic sociologists call retrospective reinterpretation which suggests that it’s impossible to be certain that our behaviour today is caused by events in our past.

That doesn’t stop so-called experts from readily applying such labels. In recent years we have seen the emergence of labels such as aspergers, ADHD, body dysmorphia and dyslexia. But all of these require deviations from what is regarded as normal behaviour or performance before the label can be applied.

Applying labels to individuals, rather than closely examining the deviations from normality which created the need for the labels in the first place, has now become common and soon we may all have labels or syndromes applied to us.

There are some benefits to this of course. The multi-national drug companies can increase their profits by producing chemical solutions to such problems, professional experts can make a very good living diagnosing and treating such syndromes and charities can be formed to help those labelled and their families.

There is no doubt that having a syndrome is usually more acceptable than some of the stigmatising names often attached to the behaviour or performances in question. But we should not allow the idea that there is such a thing as normality to go unchallenged. The expert at the Pistorius trial suggested that he was encouraged by his family to be ‘as normal as possible’ but what does that mean?

As disabled people, we all live in societies which seek to label us as abnormal. If we continue to collude with the application of such labels, even if it’s in our short term interest then they become yet another means of classifying, controlling and segregating us from the rest of society. At times like this I’m not sure that’s a good idea.

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