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Criticisms of Disability Labeling

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Within IDEA, disability labels identify formal definitions that are used to determine eligibility. Disability labels are a necessary part of the special education process, at least with regard to how it is conducted in the United States. However, the mandated use of formal labels has been criticized by some parents and child advocacy groups who have concerns about the unintended negative consequences that stem from labeling.

One concern over disability labeling is the potential for such labels to cause children to be singled out and even ridiculed. Peers can treat children who are different from themselves unkindly. Some parents worry that labels increase the likelihood of this happening, and that the labels themselves would become a way to tease or ridicule their child.

Another way labeling can harm students is through the way that they may come to define and artificially limit the way that special needs children come to think of themselves, and the way that others come to think of these students. Disability labels focus on what students cannot do, not on what they can do, and therefore can encourage children to think of themselves as incomplete or inadequate and to contribute to the development of low self-esteem. The use of such labels may also inadvertently push well-meaning family members and teachers to lower their expectations of a child once labeled with a disability. This in turn may affect the child's overall success because when parents and teachers do not challenge children adequately, it makes it harder for them to think well of themselves. Positive self-esteem is something that grows from the experience of meeting and conquering challenges; it cannot easily develop when expectations of a child are low. (A Nurturing article that describes this in more detail will be coming soon).

A final criticism of disability labeling is that labels are inherently general, and fail to capture the unique strengths and limitations of each child, or the severity of their symptoms.

Knowing the down-sides associated with disability labeling can help parents and teachers and special needs students themselves to compensate for them. Parents, teachers, and other school professionals can work diligently to see each child as an individual with unique needs, strengths, and qualities. Parents, in their role as advocates for their children, play a particularly important role in helping to insure that negative expectations do not come to dominate a child's educational planning. Parents perform this corrective role by emphasizing their child's abilities along with their disabilities. They can keep a watchful eye on their child's experiences with other children, and keep in check their own expectation of their child to ensure they are neither too high, nor too low.

Advantages of Disability Labeling

There are several advantages to labeling children's disabilities. First, labeling a child as disabled in a binary "true-or-false" manner makes it clear in a formal manner to all involved parties that the child requires special accommodation. Under IDEA, it is necessary that a disability be identified and labeled in order for children to be eligible to receive special education services.

Moreover, the generalized nature of disability labels help professionals to communicate with one another about groups of children who have similar specialized needs and also helps them choose certain methods to provide education to those children. It is far more efficient to simply use a label to describe a type of disability than to list out all the symptoms and signs associated with that particular disability each time you need to communicate.

Labels help groups of individuals who have disabilities in common form a group identity. This identity helps them become more visible to lawmakers and researchers, which in turn helps to obtain legislation, funding, and scientific research which may benefit the group. The group identity also allows parents, families, and other groups which support youth with disabilities to come together to provide each other support and to advocate for their children.

Labeling children's disabilities may also provide them with a social benefit inasmuch as their labels help their peers to better understand where they are coming from. Sometimes children will be more comfortable and more welcoming to a child with disabilities when they can learn about and understand what makes their peer differently-abled. Thus, labels help children to comfortably talk about how they are different from each other, and how they are the same. Often, learning that a child's impairment isn't contagious, or learning that a child isn't purposefully trying to be different from others, can be very calming for other children.