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Life Beyond the Label

February 23, 2016

by Kathleen Vestal Logan, M.S., M.A.

“My mother understands everything you’re saying, so please look at her when you’re talking,” I pleaded. Mom had been in the nursing home for a week and I’d begun to see how the staff consistently treated her—as if she were incompetent. Sadly, she had developed debilitating supra nuclear palsy (you may remember the actor Dudley Moore who had it) and could no longer be understood when she spoke. However, her eyes and brain were still alert and she could respond to yes or no questions with a nod of her head, very aware of what was happening.
 
It was a crisis situation when I had to have her admitted, and I wasn’t as diligent as normal about the details. One day while visiting, I picked up the chart at the foot of her bed and saw the admitting diagnosis: dementia. No wonder they’re treating her this way, I thought. The incorrect diagnosis was assigned by a physician who didn’t know her and was also acting under pressure. To me, she was my beloved mother; to the staff, she was “the new patient with dementia” and they didn’t see her beyond the diagnosis. That happened more than twenty years ago, but I’ve detested labels ever since, acutely aware of the damage they can do.
 
Sometimes labeling can be a good first step, allowing us to distinguish between broad categories of people, such as tall/short; male/female, Hispanic/Asian. These are useful descriptive categories. But note the change when you describe someone as smart, lazy, liberal or conservative, extremist, disabled, racist, etc.; these are judgmental, putting the person in a “box” which is full of assumptions and limits other information which doesn’t fit. I know all about disabled people so I don’t need to explore any further, someone may think unconsciously. Talking, listening, sharing, and learning about each other stop, and anything that doesn’t fit in the box is ignored or overlooked. The fullness of the person is severely diminished .
 
It’s essential to go beyond these superficialities. I was quiet and exceedingly shy as a young woman, for example, and was often labeled as a snob. I only know this because people who worked with me would say after a couple months, “I thought you were a snob, but now I know you’re not.” They were willing and able to readjust their initial judgment.
 
Being labeled can have long-term consequences, too. Like my mother was, disabled people are often simply referred to as their diagnosis, such as “autistic” or “Down syndrome.” We expect little of them beyond the label, often not bothering to find out specifically what they can do and who they are as individuals. Many people began to believe their label and live within its confines, unable to deploy their full capabilities. What if Steven Hawking had succumbed to his diagnosis? The world would have been deprived of his genius.
 
Labels are shortcuts which allow us to pretend we know who and what someone is. But as one high school girl, Zoe, said online, “Labels are like covering someone’s real identity. You’re basically giving them a costume.” Sadly, some people live up (or down) to their labels. Students described as low-achievers early in school, for example, may meet the low expectations teachers have for them and perform poorly. If a woman hears the same label often enough, she may stop fighting it and start conforming to others’ perceptions of her. In that manner, someone described as “just a housewife” may never realize her many gifts and potential.
 
We can all avoid the label trap. Yes, go ahead and make that first superficial description of someone, but keep going. Dig deeper. Eagage in conversation, focusing on the other person. Ask questions. Listen actively, expanding your view of the person. Tug the sides of her box until you expose a whole human being.
 
As for my mother? I spoke to the caregivers, asking them to look her in the eye, call her by name, and ask questions framed so she could nod her head to respond. “Please treat her as a competent woman, because she is,” I said. Like all of us, she had a life beyond her label. As Martina Navratilova aptly put it, “Labels art for filing. Labels are for clothing. Labels are not for people.”