When Labels Hurt

Terry Matlen, ACSW Health Guide
  • Do you remember when you or your child was first diagnosed with ADHD? Were you surprised by the diagnosis? Did the words sting you ears and burn your tongue? Or were you actually relieved, knowing that there was finally an understandable reason for the hyperactivity, impulsivity and/or distractibility?


    For many, getting the diagnosis explains the reasons behind poor school or work performance; being disorganized; not finishing projects; and many other difficulties associated with having ADHD.


    But for others, there can be a feeling of horror and dread. "ADHD? Does that mean I'm brain damaged or crazy?"

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    Labels can be damaging. They can cause people to see only the label, not the person. Stereotypes are often ingrained in people's minds which can be hard to shake off. When faced with a new employee who openly shares his ADHD, uninformed employers and co-workers might assume the new person won't be able to hold his own at work.


    Being labeled can cause individuals to feel just that- like a label. There are concerns, and often valid ones, that others will not look *beyond* the label and see the whole person, with all the wonderful attributes and gifts everyone has to offer, regardless of a psychiatric or neurological condition.


    Yet, labels can be good, too. They help us understand and accept the individual's struggles. Instead of being called lazy, we know that people with ADHD often have trouble initiating activities, projects and chores. It may "look" like lazy behavior, but it isn't. ADHD is a label that explains a collection of behaviors.


    Labels can also protect people with disabilities. Laws are now set up that are supposed to enable all individuals to be protected so that they are not discriminated against (though admittedly, we still have a long way to go). They also are used to provide people with medical insurance coverage and government assistance. Without the label, these would be rejected and many would go without needed medications, medical help and more.


    Today's SharePost topic was triggered by an incident that happened a few days ago. Since I also advocate for children with special needs, I belong to lots of different special education internet lists. The other day, my  inbox was filled with irate emails about a move that was just recently released. Tropic Thunder, starring Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Tom Cruise Robert Downey Jr. and other big celebrity names, has caused quite a stir in the disabilities community. And rightfully so.


    Throughout the movie, the archaic word "retard" is used...and in horribly derogatory ways.


    Mike McLaughlin, a disability rights advocate and a parent of a child with an intellectual disability said: "Anyone who doesn't think this movie will influence the attitudes and behaviour of young people toward people with disabilities hasn't been in a high school or around young kids recently. As soon as they leave the theatre, kids are quoting movie lines and acting out scenes as well as the actors did. They won't care that this movie is meant to be a parody of Hollywood's excesses."


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    What does this have to do with ADHD?


    Over the years, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) morphed through different classification labels, including "minimal brain damage", "minimal brain dysfunction" and "hyperkinetic reaction of childhood", until Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) was first introduced in the 1980 edition of the DSM-Ill. We now know that people with ADHD are not brain damaged and most would certainly be offended if they were told they were.


    In that regard, labels can be hurtful. Imagine the names children were called back in the days when ADHD was known as "minimal brain damage!" Even today, we hear people use the term ADHD in negative ways that do not promote understanding of the condition.


    It's our obligation to inform people of how using hurtful labels is damaging to one's self esteem. Just like we have moved away from using the word retarded to instead, people with intellectual or cognitive disabilities, we need to remember to use this same wisdom when describing ADHD.


    Thankfully, labels are changing for the better, but we still have a long way to go. If it were up to me, we'd change ADHD to attention inconsistency disorder, or something similar. Because we all know that children and adults with ADHD do not have a deficit in attention; they have a hard time being consistent and having control of it.

Published On: August 21, 2008