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The Labels People Attached to Me in Life With Learning Disabilities

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People with disabilities have many labels associated with them. Some are labels that are attached to them and others are how the person views themselves. Many labels serve a purpose, but others do more harm than good. The hurtful labels are often untrue and often stick the longest. The person with a disability believes the label assigned to them and is stuck with that label for life.

Labels are a part of our culture. If you go to the grocery store, you will find labels identifying products. Recently, Dove removed the word “normal” from their label. Dove has also featured a child in a wheelchair on the label. Having positive disability representation is important to people with disabilities. People need to see that a person with a disability is just someone who needs to do certain things differently.

I can remember receiving my first label in kindergarten. I was diagnosed with a learning disability. I was fortunate to get a diagnosis at a young age. My parents explained in simple terms that I had a learning disability and I learned differently. Many of my peers gave me labels: “dumb,” “stupid,” “SPED,” and “intellectually disabled.” I was labeled as a “reject,” “screw up” and “not worthy to go to school with them.” I can remember one bully in particular saying, “I don’t know why we have to go to school with people like you.” Another peer said, “People watch you at school and wonder what is wrong with you.” If I would go to a public place with this person, she would say, “I hope we don’t run into anyone we know.”

Growing up in a small Western Pennsylvania school district, diversity was not celebrated. If you didn’t fit into a narrow box, you were not included in the close-knit community. The negative reactions from peers often caused me to be hesitant to talk to others. I quickly got labeled as shy or quiet. I was voted the shyest girl in fifth grade. None of the boys received a vote for being shy. I also remember a teacher calling me anti-social because I didn’t want to join a group for a class project. I wanted to be social and interact with others. What I didn’t want was the rejection and the humiliation I often faced.

I developed more friendships with students from a neighboring school district. The people from the other district couldn’t see my labels or my disability. Finally, I had a place where I didn’t carry the reputation of being the “dumb kid.” When I did disclose my disability, I met more acceptance than rejection. Now, many students are cyberbullied and don’t have the luxury of leaving their problems at school. The labels put on them follow them long after the school day ends.

Standardized tests are another way I always felt labeled. I knew I wasn’t good at math, science or mechanical reasoning, and the test added more sticking power to the label. I remember having to take a mechanical reasoning test. The person administering the test said this was an important test and employers will call and ask about the score you got. He went on to say that this test determined whether we would end up in a shack in an undesirable neighborhood or having a nice place to live. I imagine that I didn’t do well on the test. To my knowledge, I have had not had an employer call for the results. I also didn’t end up living in the undesirable neighborhood predicted.

I have had people label me as high maintenance or sensitive. I have been told to lighten up and not to be so serious over everything. People in the same situation may react differently. All feelings are valid, it’s what you do with them that counts. People also try to label a person as successful by accomplishments, the amount of money they make or the house they live in. Others may label a person as rich or successful. Successful people are often labeled as being happy. Many people seem like they have it all, but they have their struggles as well. A rich person may have money but not joy or contentment.

People have mistakenly labeled my concerns about employment as laziness and not wanting to work. I wanted to work but was concerned that my disability would negatively impact my job performance. I had jobs where things didn’t work out. It took me a while to find a job that was the right fit and learn how to advocate for myself.

The trouble with labels is they rarely tell the whole story. We never really know what a person’s story is until we get to know them. Oftentimes, the hardest part of having a disability is the reaction of other people. I have learned strategies to compensate for my disability and to live my life. A person at a church I attended once said, “God must have had a bad day when he made a person with a disability.”

People sometimes approach me and ask why I walk the way I do. My gait is due to how I was positioned in the womb and is more in my hips than my feet. I have had people said it looks weird or creepy. Once, a guy at the gym asked what was wrong with my “deformed feet.” I wanted to ask him what was wrong with his deformed mind. It’s hard for me to talk about; it is much easier to say that I am bad at math than give an answer on why I walk the way I do.

Many people say to ignore what others say and leave the past behind. But the labels that others put on you stick. So many warning labels have been attached to me. Slowly, I am beginning to peel off the labels. Some of those labels sting as I pull them off. Fragments of other labels remain glued to me no matter how hard I try to peel them off. Despite the labels put on me, I can choose to believe what I want to believe about myself. Despite the warning labels attached to me, I will move forward and be successful.

Getty image by Cao Chunhai.

Originally published: May 5, 2021
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