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Exploring learning disabilities: supporting belonging
Exploring learning disabilities: supporting belonging

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7 To label or not to label

You have seen how difficult it is to decide how many people have a learning disability as the definition is broad and imprecise. Although people are labelled at school so they can get support, once they leave school, there isn’t a clear mechanism for labelling them unless they are for any reason referred to a psychologist or psychiatrist.

Why label?

Like many issues in learning disability, the question of labels is a fraught one.

Many people with learning disabilities question the value of the label and some go as far as to blame the label for some of the difficulties they experience. Remember Charlene in Video 1 saying the label makes her feel ten times worse?

‘Label jars, not people’ has long been a popular slogan of the civil rights movement of people with learning disabilities.

An image of a jar with the saying ‘label jars... not people’ written inside.
Figure 5 People with learning disabilities have criticised the use of labels for many years

On the other hand, there are arguments in favour of labelling. Academic statisticians argue that it is vital to count how many people there are who are likely to need support, who will need housing when parents become too frail to care for them, and who should be flagged as needing special provision when they visit the GP or other health services.

Clare, the mother of Elinor, has strong views on this:

If I am asked about Elinor I don’t say ‘she is labelled learning disabled’, or ‘she has a cognitive impairment’, I say she is learning disabled or has a learning disability. I need a way to describe her such that I don’t have to go into complicated explanations as to why she hasn’t gone to university, got a job, got a relationship, etc., and why my life turned out the way it has. Also it is the name, the description, the ‘label’ that unlocked the support she, and I, needed for her to have a good life.

Activity 6 Pros and cons of labelling

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes
  1. Click the link below to answer the poll on whether you think people should be labelled as having a learning disability.

    Link: Labelling [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

    Once you have submitted your choice you can then see how others have voted.

  1. Now watch this video of Charlene and Terry discussing labelling. As you watch, note down up to three positives and three negatives of having a label given by Charlene and Terry in the video.
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Video 6
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  • Learning disabilities need to be talked about more and labels are a way of opening up the conversation.
  • You need categories if you are on benefits.
  • People with learning disabilities need help and the label can point out who needs that help.


  • It makes you feel bad - ‘You feel ten times worse’

  • It sets you apart from others - ‘We are just humans trying to get on with our lives’

  • It is misleading and can affect other people’s views about what a person can and can’t do – ‘We’re just slow, screw it up and throw it away’.

Charlene and Terry have strong views on labels and at times have different opinions to one another, which highlights how tricky the subject is.

  1. Click the link below to answer the poll which again asks your position on labelling. You should tick the three statements you most agree with.

    Link: Labelling (II)

    Once you have submitted your choice you can then see how others have voted.


1 to 4 are arguments against labelling, 5 to 9 are arguments in favour. Were you conflicted?

One of the difficulties is that you don’t know whether the label unlocks any support. Only 11% of the adults who have been counted as having a learning disability in England get long-term support from Councils. Others manage without such support.

In this section you’ve discussed whether labels are a good thing. This is a debate that you will return to throughout this course.

The next section is about human rights. The labelling discussion has a bearing on this, and you will return briefly to this discussion in the final section of Session 1.