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Column: ‘People speak to me like I’m ET’ – why social labelling is a problem

We need to change the way we view people with special needs, writes Adam Harris, who has Asperger Syndrome.

Adam Harris

IT IS ALMOST funny to think of the old cliché of the glass ‘half empty’ or ‘half full’, and to apply it to how we view people with any kind of minor form of special needs in this country, be it physical or psychological.

We don’t focus on what the person can do, which nine times out of ten is probably the same as everyone else, or maybe even above others in certain areas. Oh no. Instead we wish to highlight the person’s DISability to do something.

Personally I think we need to start viewing people with special needs as having disABILITIES.

I write this piece looking from the inside out. I am a 17 year old with Asperger Syndrome – which is a form on autism where people have normal or often above normal intelligence but can struggle with anxiety, social skills and other aspects of day to day life. If you met me you would likely never know – I am sociable, funny (or so I like to think!) and just as intelligent as the next individual you would meet.

I was fortunate, unlike too many others, to benefit from early intervention and as a result am really enjoying my life to the max. But I can say that I have seen first hand the effect that labels have. As a result, I am doing all I can to highlight issues relating to AspergerSyndrome and disability as whole through setting up new initiatives such as AspergersAdvice.org (which goes live next month) and the Disability Advice Network, which will manage the website along with other projects including a Disability ‘TripAdvisor’-style website.

Gazebo or umbrella?

So what are labels and who gives them out? Well in some respects we all need labels – for example, I needed diagnosis to get access to the services I needed for my condition; sick people need diagnosis for treatment; young people need to be recognised as such to access education. But it’s when we start to get vague and generalise that the problems really set in.

All too often the media writes vaguely about “young people” or “the disabled” without really looking at individuals, rather than broad brush strokes – you can no more say all Irish people are drunk fools and look like leprechauns, than you can say all people with special needs are stupid or all young people troublemakers.

Laws are often passed to help people with special needs but as this massive gazebo rather than an individual umbrella – and while we can probably all remember spending time in school on celebrating diversity, often the system seems to fail to explain that you can never generalise. Instead it leaves issues such as special needs as vague as possible; probably due to time constraints and to avoid offending anybody.

The effects of these breakdowns in communication are easy to see. It can often be hilarious when someone finds out you have special needs for the first time. On many occasions I have been at parties and other events when I might have a perfectly normal conversation with an individual, only for them to find out during the course of the night that I have a condition – and proceed to speak to me as if either I am deaf, or they only have very basic English!

Speaking to ET

Yet we cannot blame individuals for this crisis, because I know that every person who has tried to communicate to me as though they were speaking to ET does so with the best of intentions. They simply heard the DISability and due to little proper knowledge of the topic, bunched my disABILITY in with the thousands of others across the globe into this one nice vague term the media and state can use for everything – a kind of one-size-fits-all approach that is too often used against us young people as a whole.

I know that labels are not only thrown at those with special needs. How often have you heard sweeping statements like “those young people” or “all travellers”? Or perhaps most horrifically, the disgraceful generalisation thrown at the Polish community in Ireland by Judge Mary Devins.

However I think we have a huge amount to be optimistic about. What always pleases me is how my own friends and classmates seem to embrace individuals on their own merits rather than on any label traditionally associated with them. I think we young Irish really are the generation who can break the age-old tradition which really has evolved little since the medieval ironsmith’s brand. We are fortunate to have several fantastic organisations and initiatives around us such as SpunOut.ie to help us implement a more educated, understanding Irish society.

We young Irish have an opportunity to truly reform perception in this country for everyone’s benefit – as everyone gets labelled at some stage.

Adam Harris is the founder of AspergersAdvice.org and the Disability Advice Network. AspergersAdvice.org is an online support and social hub website for those affected by Asperger Syndrome and their families. The website will be launched next month.

To find out more about this project, Adam’s story, Asperger Syndrome or other projects being planned by the Disability Advice Network or to get involved then please email AspergersAdvice@gmail.com or on Twitter @AspergersAdvice.

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Adam Harris

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