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Peeling Off Society's Labels

Sue showed artistic skill in early elementary school. Her paintings amazed friends and won awards. But her report card showed mostly average grades.

She managed high school a little better. In fact, by that time her achievement test scores were well above average.

Teachers in the early 1940s had no words to describe this extraordinary child. Shy and retiring, Sue exhibited occasional abnormal behavior such as nervous tics and social awkwardness. She cried easily. She became a target for bullies, both at home and at school.

To her family and friends’ amazement, at age 16 Sue shed the eccentric personality and became a homecoming princess. A talent scout invited her to participate in a statewide competition for the Miss America pageant.

If Sue were growing up today, she would have a label added to her school record: high-functioning autistic. Teachers would formulate an individual education plan which may have included special needs classes, separate from mainstream learning with her peers. And the label would have haunted the girl through the rest of her days. She would have considered herself sub-standard, abnormal.

Toby, on the other hand, was unfortunate enough to be born decades later. Educational psychology was coming to life, and labeling children became a convenient way to place them in societal pigeonholes. Many students with learning disabilities were whisked away into special classes, robbed of the chance to rise to challenges through hard work.

Toby was good at football. He made friends easily. He was popular. But his dyslexia kept him at the bottom of his class. Placed in special ed, he wore the label for the rest of his school days.

Today, Toby is a gifted auto mechanic. He can tear apart engines and repair nearly anything. His family and friends stand amazed at his carpentry skills.

In weak moments, Toby struggles to peel off the label his educators applied to him: learning disabled, high-functioning autistic.

One family had a son who experienced both sides of the labeling game. Considered “retarded,” Elton shifted from a regular high school to a school for retarded children. His relatives noticed a remarkable yet sad change in Elton’s behavior. As long as the teenage boy attended classes in a regular school, he adopted the normal behavior of the students around him. When placed in a school for more severely retarded children, he regressed to the behavior of those students.

While I’m not an educational psychologist, there is something to be said for not being too quick to label children.

A wise friend has a child who is probably high-functioning autistic by educational standards. Yet the boy in pre-school years could identify various dinosaurs and accurately tell people their scientific names. Today he attends a regular school and does well. He has learned to adopt the behavior of his classmates (hopefully more good than bad). And I applaud his dad who refused to allow friends to slap a label onto his son. “Give him some time,” the dad cautioned.

I am an advocate for allowing children to progress at their own pace. Some may outgrow abnormalities and become productive citizens, like Sue and Toby.

As a friend of those mentioned, I lean toward integrating children with a few challenges into more normal surroundings. Perhaps homeschooling co-ops would meet the needs and provide compassionate friendship for these children. There is a plethora of options for home educating today.

Thomas Edison was sent home from school when the teacher told his mother that Thomas was too stupid to learn. His mother taught him at home. We can thank his “learning disability” while enjoying lightbulbs.

Many people struggle with labels that stuck. Klutz. Nervous. Fatty. Loser. If I had a magic wand, I would wave it over all the mis-characterized people I know and call them Worthy, Accepted, Talented, Compassionate.

What about you? Do you know anyone who struggled to peel off a label someone applied to them early in life? Tell us about it in the comment box below.

One last thought. Want to be encouraged beyond measure? Check out this video by someone once labeled “retarded.” Steve Stetler surrendered his disability to God and reaped a great reward.


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