Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Labels and discrimination

Several items related to discrimination have shown up in my inbox lately. One was a forwarded email from the Disability Policy Consortium, captioned "Drop the R Word." That, of course, caught my attention. Since I wasn't sensitized to the "R word," I puzzled for some time trying to figure out what it was. In the process, I read and re-read the newsletter and eventually figured out the word. I also got the message: disrespectful labels hurt people. When people are labeled as "retarded" (the "R word"), then it is easier to discriminate against them. Therefore, the reasoning goes, it is better to use "person-first" language and refer to people in this group as "persons with disabilities."

In the HIV/AIDS community, we insisted on person-first language a long time ago. Rather than being labeled as “AIDS victims,” the preferred designation was “people with AIDS.” Later, the even more positive “people living with AIDS” (or HIV) was introduced. And yet, we continue to see stigma attached to AIDS that is not attached to lung cancer or cervical cancer or hepatitis C or any of the other diseases and conditions that, in many instances, can be attributed to unsafe behaviors. More than stigma, we also see harmful and discriminatory acts committed against persons living with HIV/AIDS and against their families/associates and against people who are assumed to be at risk for HIV/AIDS.

So what's my point? Words are merely channels for the thought (just like 95.5 FM is the channel for my favorite oldies music). We will always try to define our world by categorizing people. Some are tall, some short. Some are skinny, some not so much. We value some categories and disdain others. At some point, yes, the labels can become weapons, wielded to hurt and oppress the people that they label, reinforcing hurtful and discriminatory behavior, turning the people that are labeled into objects and not persons. But it starts, I think, with the thought that the category that we are creating (and for which we must create a label) is “less than,” “worse than,” “inferior to,” “not as good as,” or the ever useful “bad.” Once we place such evaluations on the category, then there are all sorts of bad behaviors that can accompany them, and it doesn’t really matter how nice and polite we are when actually assigning labels to the category.

Just think about the word “chairman.” Women argued that the word almost established in people’s minds that only a man could lead a committee. To eliminate sex discrimination, they argued, the word should be “chairperson.” So here we are, thirty some years later. Attend any committee hearing that you choose, and you’ll hear one of two things: “Mr. Chairman” or “Madame Chairperson.” We changed the language, but we couldn’t change the categories. The good news is that we really have made some progress in changing the behaviors. While sex discrimination continues in the U.S., we’ve ended a fair chunk of it. I attribute that less to manipulating the language than to changing the law, modeling the correct behavior, lots and lots of education, and some direct challenges to bad behaviors.

If people don’t want to be labeled a particular way, especially if they consider the label to be hurtful, yes, get rid of the label. The “R word” is a negative label, and it is often used in a hurtful way. We should ban it from our everyday language. I hope that the disability community also uses the process of banning the label to educate people about the bad behaviors that the label allows. I expect that they will also work on the laws that allow such bad behaviors. There might even be some progress through a few in-your-face challenges to attitudes and behaviors. It is, after all, harder to discriminate against someone who is perceived as being powerful than it is to discriminate against someone who is perceived as being weaker.

I’m thinking that we need to do something of the same for “people living with HIV/AIDS.” Not, I’d say, to change the label, but to change the values placed on the category that the label identifies. A good place to start would be to talk about those bad behaviors.

What’s happening in your community?

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