the problem with labels

wallagainsthate.jpgI’m a librarian, so I’m a habitual categorizer. We need labels on books so we can find them later. We need to categorize things with subject headings and call numbers so you can find multiple books on the same thing. But I’m also aware that the labels reflect warped ideas about things. Library of Congress classifications place women after families and children. No judgment being made there, eh? GLBT books are shelved between deviance and sadism. Jenna Freedman points out that “Third Wave Feminism” doesn’t have its own subject heading, but recently an important new heading was added – for books on “Cockroaches as Pets.” The system reflects a unitary and outdated idea of what belongs where and which topics count.

Labels for people present their own issue. Within the Austism/Asperger’s community one label that may seem benign contains a lot of unspoken consequences. Asperger Square 8 has a thought provoking post on the label “high-functioning.” It can be a label that a) divides the community into “I’m not okay, you’re okay” and “maybe you’re just faking it” and b) makes problems the fault of the “high-functioning” individual.

I am Joe’s (High) Functioning Label. I serve many purposes for people who like to discuss Joe. What I do for Joe himself is less clear, depending often on Joe’s Point of View. I attach myself to Joe’s Autism Label during the Diagnostic Evaluation, which can occur at any point in Joe’s life, though early childhood is best, if Joe desires to be taken at all seriously. Bonding tightly with Joe’s Autism Label, I have the power to make Joe’s Autism “mild,” or less real. . . .

Joe may communicate well by typing. As Joe’s Functioning Label, one of my responsibilities is to ensure that Joe not use this skill to speak about Autism. I sometimes fail at this, and in these cases Joe may be subjected to harsh criticism, ridicule or even threats for having forgotten that he is NLMC [“not like my child” – the one who has real problems].

Sometimes, I prevent Joe from needing accommodations in school, and later in the workplace. Often, Joe will be unemployed as an adult. Sometimes he is underemployed, working at low paying jobs which do not engage his interests or make use of his skills. Joe may misunderstand directions or find himself unable to break inefficient patterns, even when warned by his employer. Joe may have difficulty relating to co-workers, quickly finding himself without allies. He may misinterpret the culture of the business he works for, making remarks which are “inappropriate” or failing to appear at the Optionally Required Social Event.

When Joe is fired, I am there to remind him (and everyone else) that this is his own fault. When Joe protests that the employer’s failure to accommodate his Autism may be at least a part of the problem, everyone looks at me in disbelief. I am the evidence Joe needed nothing. I am Joe’s Functioning Label.

The Autistic Bitch From Hell has (as always) a few choice words about “functioning” labels.

Thanks to Ballastexistenz for the link.


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