Beyond the Labels that Destroy: Excerpt from Benjamin T. Conner’s Amplifying Our Witness

Amplifying Our Witness
Amplifying Our Witness

Benjamin T. Conner has worked with adolescents for twenty years and currently runs a ministry to adolescents with developmental disabilities.

In the following excerpt from his new book — Amplifying Our Witness: Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities — he stresses the need for Christians to abandon hurtful labels and instead cultivate loving friendships and ministry partnerships with young people of all abilities.

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What do you do when you are at a camp designed for kids with disabilities and one of your campers, who happens to have Asperger’s syndrome, is in the middle of a crowd of peers with Down syndrome yelling at them and calling them “retards” because he feels excluded from their game? He is socially aware enough to detect a difference between himself and the others, and, consequently, has feelings of loneliness and exclusion, but he is unable to empathize with them as one who has himself been labeled and ridiculed. He does not realize that by employing a hurtful label to others he is perpetuating a culture that will destroy him.

One thing I hear people say about labels, in defense of using them, is “But it’s true.” In other words, the person is obese, the person is Oriental, the person is retarded. What they miss is that it actually isn’t true, in that the way the label is used represents or creates a distortion of reality. When we label others, we potentially limit the scope of our relationship by focusing attention on a certain way of knowing them. Labels often emphasize caricatures and focus on deficits and limitations, and in this way there are things they obscure or don’t tell us. People with autism or with Down syndrome are not a homogeneous group — they are individuals. Even in our typical relationships, for example, we would never proclaim, “Bryce is my white, middle-class, straight, able-bodied, protestant friend.” He is just Bryce in all of his Bryce-ness, and the labels do as much to limit one’s understanding of Bryce as they do to explain him. Since labels are political and social constructions, they generate “asymmetric relationships.” To say “Gibson has MR and cerebral palsy” is to ensure that he will not have a chance to make a fresh first impression and to orient others toward his impairments rather than his possibilities, relationships, and gifts. This is why we use “people-first” language in the field of disability studies.

Another danger with labeling is that it perpetuates stereotypes and misconceptions. Most people who don’t have friends or family members with Down syndrome haven’t witnessed the personhood of such individuals. They are among “the disabled,” a generic, nameless group of persons with whom we don’t desire to and can’t imagine how to connect in any deep and meaningful way. When this is the case, when we dehumanize a person into the category of “the disabled” it becomes easier to deny their experience of being human and to project how we imagine we would feel onto the person with disabilities. We might conclude, “If I were like that I’d rather be dead” or “I wouldn’t want to live life like that.” We might even be moved to social action and advocacy as a result of our sense of their condition. Of course, one problem with this way of thinking is that it appeals to our basest enlightened self-interest and our efforts don’t account for the reality of the other. It also fails to recognize that we can’t see things from another’s perspective. Most kids I know who have developmental disabilities, apart from loneliness (something that would make anyone’s life miserable), are quite joyful and happy.

American journalist and political commentator George Will candidly wonders why so many medical professionals consider joyful people like his son, who has Down syndrome, unworthy of life. He concludes, “Jon experiences life’s three elemental enjoyments — loving, being loved and ESPN. For Jon, as for most normal American males, the rest of life is details.”

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One of the things I fear about this book is that someone might read it in hopes of learning what they can do for adolescents with developmental disabilities. That is not my purpose at all. The challenge of this book is that we need to learn to be for adolescents with disabilities by being with them. If we desire to minister with adolescents with developmental disabilities, then our relationship with them is not a client–service provider relationship or one based on pathology in which we try to cure them. If we desire mutuality in our ministry with adolescents with special needs, then our relationship with them needs to be one of Christian friendship. When we offer ourselves as friends we are already doing something with kingdom-of-God significance — we are giving them a new label, “friend,” and are, thereby, de-stigmatizing them. As [Brett] Webb-Mitchell states, “people with disabling conditions are not just another social action project for our churches. This is not social posturing; this is kingdom-of-God ethics ruling.” We are saying that they are not objects that receive charity, service, or cure; they are friends with whom we share life. We don’t focus on the disabling condition (and we don’t deny it, either), but we do all we can to transform the disabling culture that is the real reason they have not been able to find full inclusion in our churches and communities.

Click to order Benjamin T. Conner’s Amplifying Our Witness: Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities.