The Trouble with Labels

I have a problem with labels.  I resist being put in a bucket with one label on it. I am more complex than Woman, Mother, Graduate, White, Catholic, Feminist. I’m more than a label.

Imagine George Clooney at 76. He won’t be more handsome than Uncle Ken.

In my Freshman high school health class, I learned there are three levels of mental impairment:  moron, idiot, and imbecile.  Really?  My grandmother told me that she glued a lock of her hair to the inside of  Uncle Ken’s baby bonnet because she didn’t want anyone to think he was a moron.  She explained that morons lacked hair and didn’t speak, just like Uncle Ken until he was almost three years old. (This by the way, made me laugh out loud, given Uncle Ken has George Clooney good looks and grace, along with a successful engineering career and a beautiful family.)

Moron, idiot, and imbecile became unsavory labels, so feeble-minded and retarded took their place, which soon morphed into mildly, moderately, and severely retarded, and next marginally, moderately, and totally independent.

I started working with Special Olympics while I attended college. Educable and trainable became common labels.

Although studies indicate that changing a label has little impact on changing attitude, the labels keep changing as one set falls out of favor.  (See A Rose is a Rose.)  Only education changes attitudes.

When CoCo was five, she got the diagnosis with pseudohypoparathyroidism which results in mild retardation and she would never have children.

“What does that mean for her future?” I asked.

“She’ll developing at a slower rate until she’s about twelve.”

“Why will she stop at twelve?”

“Everyone does.  By that time, the brain is pretty much set. You know that saying, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?”

I remember thinking that ‘m still learning new things. Why should she stop. But then again, my brain needs time to contemplate information, so I just stayed quiet.

Besides, that didn’t seem so bad.  I knew a lot of adults that thought along the lines of 10-year-olds. And being childless is certainly not the end of the world. (I had four kids in six years. As much as I loved motherhood,  I could understand the advantages of a childless life.)

“What’s should I do to help her?” I asked the specialist.

“You need the label to qualify her for special education,” he replied looking me straight in the eye.  “That’s all.  Your job is to love her as a parent.” He went on  to explain that I should take an active role in her education, but I avoid getting over goal-oriented with CoCo; no more so than with my other children.

When kids on the playground teased CoCo, I taught her to tell them she has pseudohypoparathyroidism, she’s not a Retard, and she’s not a slobby-dog.” (I don’t really know what a snobby-dog is, but it sounds bad.)

CoCo made artwork for my office.

“Cute. How old is your daughter?” a colleague asked.


I could see the wheels turning in his head, trying to make sense of CoCo’s artwork.

“She’s  mildly retarded,” I offered.

“You shouldn’t say that about your child,” he said, looking shocked.

“But she is.” He must have thought I called my daughter a retard. That’s different from using the proper label.

“Still, it’s not nice.”

But she is.”

“You shouldn’t call her that.”

Shoot, the labels changed and no one told me.

When CoCo got to middle school, the label became Impaired. Still three classifications, her’s became MMI, Mild Mental Impairment. By high school she was developmentally delayed or disabled. Back then, there was a distinction between developmental disabled and learning disabled.  The former being something permanent, the latter being something that adaptive learning environments could overcome.

CoCo is 36 years old. She is strong-willed, and determined.  She’s got a quirky sense of humor and a strict sense of right and wrong. (She read and re-read How to Behave and Why

Cover of "How to Behave and Why"
Cover of How to Behave and Why

until she can practically recite why it’s a bad idea to lie and why you should never steal.) She loves art, the Chicago Sky, live theatre and Bay Watch. She’s a better problem solver than many people I know. Although her knowledge and development path have been on a different curve than others’, she continues to learn and mature.  (I like to believe I do too.)  You really can teach an old dog new tricks.  Sometimes it just takes a different teacher or a little more time.

Last week I learned CoCo has a new label: Cognitive Impaired, or she has a Cognitive Deficit. According to the definition,  Cognitive impairment is an “inclusive term to describe any characteristic that acts as a barrier to the cognition process.[1] The term may describe deficits in global intellectual performance, such as mental retardation, it may describe specific deficits in cognitive abilities (learning disordersdyslexia), or it may describe drug-induced cognitive/memory impairment, such as that seen with alcoholglucocorticoids,[2] and the benzodiazepines.[3] Cognitive deficits may be congenital or caused by environmental factors such as brain injuriesneurological disorders, or mental illness.[4][5]

Hmmm… Sounds like CoCo is just like the rest of us. Complex and difficult to categorize.

I didn’t need a label to tell me that.