In exploring strengths-based practice, we navigate the term ‘labelling’, and how using labels can be a form of power-over, can affect people’s identities and behaviour, and confine what is possible for them.
Some labels are certainly devisive but when are they useful and helpful? When can labels enable a pathway through?
A friend of mine has spent five and a half years agonising over his daughter’s behaviour; wondering whether it was autism or another condition, or worse—that his daughter’s behaviour was ‘normal’ and that they were just awful parents. He said that it was a relief to finally have both a diagnosis and also a holistic plan in place.
He went on to say:
‘It’s official, (though not a surprise to those who know her), but she has finally been formally diagnosed by a specialist as having moderate to severe Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This means there are thought to be two chemicals (dopamine and norepinephrine) that she makes too much of, and this causes the messages between her neurons to be transmitted too quickly. This particularly impacts the parts of her brain responsible for executive control, but in time may also lead to nervous tics and other co-morbid conditions such as dyslexia, OCD, ODD. But we’re crossing our fingers that they won’t. We still have a way to go to determine if she has the more strongly Inattentive Type (so more ADD) or Hyperactive Type (HD) or, as we expect, if she has both.
‘For us the formal diagnosis is good news. While we acknowledge that her condition will require ongoing treatment, monitoring and refinement on her part and ours (for some, ADHD is a life-long condition), we are overjoyed that we have finally exited our bewildered phase and are about to embark on the enlightened phase of our journey with our beautiful, smart, joyful daughter.’
When labels are used we need to ensure:
- They are respectful, bring hope and are validating
- They recognise uniqueness and, at the same time, expose our commonalities and similarities
- They expose people’s expertise and reflect people’s strengths and capacities rather than reinforce weaknesses
- We avoid framing people as the problem by recognising the wider structural context of people’s lives
- We open up other possibilities and solutions, create greater understanding and accept that we may be wrong.
(McCashen W 2005, The Strengths Approach, ‘Taking Care with Labelling’, Chapter 2, p. 25)
It seems that we need to acknowledge the appropriate use of labelling. Actually, naming the condition, but respectfully separating it from the person, is important. My friend’s beautiful, smart, joyful daughter is just that. But now, her known condition can be treated with love and care so that she has the opportunity to grow and learn.