When I was a child, it took a tremendous amount of time and energy to learn things that took most people less time. “I’m not that smart, so I have to work harder,” was my mantra, and ‘not smart’ aka dumb was the label I placed on myself. After all, that’s what my teachers told me. My parents often asked me, “Why can’t you be as smart as your brother?” And my classmates made me feel like the most dimly lit bulb in the bunch.
When I was 25, I was working on my PhD in inter-cultural management with a focus on China. I spoke Chinese and was working very hard to master the language and succeed in all my courses. One day while hanging out with my grad school friends, one asked me, “When were you diagnosed?”
My initial thought: What is he talking about? Diagnosed?
I asked him, and that’s when he told me about ADHD. “You must get diagnosed,” he said. “It will change your world.”
So I made the appointment and, sure enough, was diagnosed. During the meeting to review the findings, the doctor said, “It really is amazing you have been able to achieve all you have in spite of your disability. Apparently you have developed a strategy that is working for you.”
You mean there is a reason I have struggled just to be mediocre? There is a reason? I’m really not dumb?
And with that new information, I was empowered. I walked away from that meeting not feeling successful in spite of being dumb, I was successful in spite of a disability. Every strategy I embraced, everything I did to get me to where I was, was validated. I could now point to the new label, and it explained so many things. It also gave me a tool to find out more so that I could face down the challenges ahead with new insight. I could connect with other people who shared that label. I could learn how life affects us the same, or differently. I was no longer a “dumb” person, I had a place and I wasn’t alone.
The Power of Labels for Communication and Connection
Labels like adhd, dyslexia, autism, and other diagnoses, such as specific language impairment, and even bipolar (one attached to our intrepid CEO and publisher, Rebecca Laffar-Smith), indicate a difference, not a defect. It helps us understand our differences, so that we can identify our strengths and find accommodations to help us overcome our weaknesses. It also gives us a way to connect with other people who have similar differences, so that we know we’re not alone in being different.
Labels can be powerful tools for understanding and support. It gives people an opportunity to learn and to connect with others who face similar challenges. It also gives us a shared terminology that shortcuts explanation and a footing to ask for the help we need.
Choosing the Right Labels
Often, negative labels like “lazy” or “dumb” are heaped onto people who are struggling with an undiagnosed disability. I know I have done it to myself. Now, my third son, who has yet to be diagnosed with dyslexia, feels the struggles and stigma of learning differently. By placing that “label” on him, we can empower him. I want to teach him the lesson I wished I had learned before I was 25: there is a reason for our struggles. But those difficulties should not and do not define us nor transcend to all areas of our persona, either. What’s more, our weaknesses are accompanied by strengths and our label will help us identify what those strengths may be.
Those who reject labels argue that they can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy or create self-limiting beliefs. Research shows this just isn’t true. “For those who reject identifying dyslexia because it ‘labels’ children…the research is NOT on your side,” says this Facebook post from Hansberry Educational Counseling, an organization that provides teaching, mentoring and counseling to children as well as workshops for parents. “Have you ever considered that in the absence of a scientific label, kids will label themselves as dumb?”
Labels are great for communicating and connecting, but they do not define our whole being, either. Instead, diagnostic labels can be leveraged to help find the tools to help people — children and adults — who learn differently than most. By letting our labels empower us and our children, as I was able to do in my 20s when I was first diagnosed, we can gain confidence from all we were able to accomplish in spite of our diagnosis. We also gain the power to look ahead at all we can achieve and discover accommodations that will help us get there.