Only Words

Guest Blog Post by: Sophie Rutter


In a way, we live in a world of words. From a very early age, we begin to categorize things using language labels. As young children, we practise using words to describe objects, and how they are the same and different from other objects. As we get older, we continue to use words to describe the way things “are”: the colours of the rainbow are_____, there is a force called gravity, I am an introvert. We use language to express ideas, convey emotions, form theories…we use it to understand one another and ourselves, to describe identities. The question is – do we give words the power to create our identities?

I think all of us with learning disabilities/ADHD are familiar with labels. Some of us have so many that keeping them all straight in our little working memories is quite the challenge! We are used to saying “I have LD/AHD”, but what do these words really mean to us? What are the consequences of looking to language to tell us about ourselves?

Don’t get me wrong; I do believe that diagnosis can be useful. It can lead to an exploration of the many different ways we learn, and help us to be better learners and teachers. It can help us to understand ourselves and each other. Diagnosis is, for many students, a gateway to access resources like accommodations and technology. However, we need to be careful about how much power we give to the words we stick to one another.

One potential problem is that we can begin to perceive all behaviour in the context of a diagnosis, and to treat others (or ourselves) differently because of it. When a teacher reads a report that identifies a child as dyslexic, might they be less likely to challenge that student in English class? When a parent becomes used to the idea that their son or daughter is hyperactive, might they begin to see their child’s energetic demeanour as pathological? When a student is told that they have a disability, can a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy result? It is important to remember that diagnoses do not describe individual people; they are categories that people fit into in different ways and to different extents. We need to be consciously aware of what our expectations are, and how those might be affecting the way we see people.

Another danger lies in that we may begin to see diagnoses as absolute things. “ADHD” is not some kind of solid, tangible object that exists within us. It is not something that we “have” in the way that you might have, say, a viral infection. When we act and think in particular ways that are consistent with our diagnoses, it is not because of the diagnosis. Terms like “disorder of written expression” or “dyscalculia” help to describe, not define, our learning. Even more importantly, ADHD and LD are not pathological in the way that an infection is. Having the flu under any circumstances is going to make you miserable. Having a disability under the right circumstances (understanding, accommodation) can lead to great success.

Words are not reality, nor do they necessarily even describe it – they conceptualize it. We are essentially free to make sense of our world however we like. Categorizing with words is one way to understand things and even to understand each other, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we are the creators of our categories. I think that one of my professors expressed the idea nicely when he said: “Make science your b*tch” (not the other way around). The universe does not tell us that we have disabilities; we tell ourselves that we do. We lack ability only according to our definitions and measurements of ability. We need to recognize that the labels we use are nothing more than our best attempts to understand little bits and pieces of one another.

We have a responsibility to explain these things in a way that young children can understand, so that they can have the courage to push themselves. No one should be made to feel that their potential has aleady been decided. I think one of the goals listed on every students’s IEP should be: “Gain understanding of both the usefulness and limitations of the language labels used in diagnostic report”. There is no point in teaching the 8-year-old with a math disability strategies for multiplying numbers if we are at the same time sending the message that this student is incapable of learning them. It should be a direct goal of special education, rather than an added bonus, for a child to learn what “disability” means, and what it does not mean.

We owe it to ourselves to give people greater power than words. We need to use labels to better understand who we are, rather than to predict who we will become. When we do that, we turn language into one of the most powerful tools we have.

We are not the terms we use to explain ourselves. We are people: multi-faceted, ever-changing, invaluable. And when you realize that the labels attached to your name belong more to the world than they do to you, only one word can capture that feeling: indescribable.

One thought on “Only Words

  1. Wow! Great first blog, Sophie! Very well thought out, I agree completely!

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