3.2 Care labels
Why is it important to explore the way language is used? Two reasons were suggested in Section 1. Definitions are important so that services and support can be targeted to where they are most needed. And words carry several meanings. One student included as an example in her answers to the activity about what care means:
‘In care’ means stigma for children and young people.
This did not fit either of the definitions – care is work or care is love. So, where does it fit? Being ‘in care’ is often assumed to be linked to being from a ‘problem family’ or being a ‘problem child’. So, although intervention by services to rescue the child is meant to be a good thing, children who have been in care often feel they have been given a label which says to the outside world ‘this child does not come from a good home, this child is probably odd’. It can carry a negative message about them, in other words a stigma. If you know someone has been ‘in care’, you might be curious to know more or you might be prejudiced against them. In some circumstances, therefore, care can be a label just like the term ‘carer’.
Take the case of Lynne Durrant. Lynne was labelled as someone in need of care. As a child, at the age of eight in 1956, she was certified as a ‘mental defective’. This meant that two doctors were prepared to sign a form to say she was ineducable, unable to benefit from schooling, and therefore should be excluded from school. She went instead to an occupation centre run by the local authority for children who had been labelled as ‘mentally defective’. The label defined Lynne as a particular sort of person, someone in need of care because it was thought that she would never be able to fend for herself as an independent adult. That label shaped Lynne's life to a great extent. She was excluded from school, never learnt to read or write, and got no educational qualifications. Little was expected of her. She did not try to get a job when she left the occupation centre. Instead she went to an adult training centre, another local authority service for people who had been labelled mental defective. Lynne's label defined her as eligible for special care provision. It both opened doors (to a sheltered life in the adult training centre and to certain financial benefits) and closed them (no job, no home of her own, no mature, long-term sexual relationship). Like ‘carer’, ‘mental defective’ was not a label Lynne applied to herself.
Times changed, and along with them the label that was applied to Lynne. She went through periods of being labelled ‘sub-normal’, then ‘mentally handicapped’, and finally, when I met her in 1992, she was introduced to me as ‘a woman with learning disabilities’. In 35 years the official label applied to Lynne, and people like her, had changed at least four times, and that leaves aside the unofficial labels she was given by others – unflattering names like ‘dumbo’, ‘spastic’, ‘mental’, ‘thicko’. However, it wasn't just a matter of the label changing. Life changed for Lynne, too. At the time you met her in the drama she had left the training centre and had a paid job alongside people who were not labelled. Although she still aspired to a home of her own, she had escaped at least some of the negative expectations that her label carried. In fact, she had acquired a new label – ‘worker’ – one which she was prepared to own.