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

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Exploring learning disabilities: supporting belonging

1 Being labelled

You will start by listening to a number of people with learning disabilities talking about their experiences of being labelled as having a learning disability.

Activity 1 Labels

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Watch this video clip of Shaun, Cian, Dayo and Phil talking about the labels that are used about them and other people with learning disabilities. How do people with a learning disability understand and make sense of these labels?

As you watch the film, make notes on:

  1. the different labels that people mention (there are 18 of these);
  2. whether they chose these labels, or if they were imposed by others;
  3. how and why some labels become terms of abuse.
Download this video clip.Video player: Video 2
Skip transcript: Video 2

Transcript: Video 2

I've been called a retard. I've also been called spastic. I've also been called weird. So-- but I've also been called a bit cheeky, a troublemaker, which is more of an endearment word, which I like to say. So they're more endearment.
Another label was a service user. Well, a learning-- a learning disabled person. Disabled. Autistic. Mentally challenged. Mentally deficient, which is an awful one.
We're all just the same.
Yeah, there were some really old labels that people used, like retard and spastic, and feeble-minded. Now they all seem like, and Mongoloid. They all seem like terrible things now. But just 50 odd years ago, people actually did seriously used to call people those kind of names.
I believe my mum went back to the maternity hospital for just a checkup with Bernadette. And she was told that Bernadette was Mongoloid because that was the reference then. And--
And they didn't call people those names to be horrible or nasty. It was just a word for them. Even the word imbecile I believe people used-- some people used to call people with learning difficulties. And people didn't usually mean it in a nasty way. It just became an abusive thing said by people.
I reckon in the future, the word special needs will be like the words spastic, or retard, et cetera, because these days, you get a lot of teenagers being abusive to people with learning difficulties saying ‘special needs, spastic’. And I don't think special needs-- now that is one that really gives me a bee in my bonnet. And I don't really want to be thought of a special just because I have autism. I would like to be special. We want to be ourselves for who we are, not what we are.
End transcript: Video 2
Video 2
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


  1. Did you find all these labels?

    Spastic, retard, imbecile, special needs, learning disability, mentally defective, mentally deficient, mentally challenged, autistic, weird, cheeky, trouble-maker, service-user, a learning-disabled person, mongoloid, learning difficulties, feeble-minded, disabled.

  2. No one chose their label. Shaun quite liked ‘cheeky’ and ‘trouble-maker’, two labels which could apply to anyone, not just someone with a learning disability.

    The memory of his sister Bernie being called ‘mongoloid’ by the hospital was clearly upsetting for Phil.

  3. Cian explained that when the label is first used it is often not meant to be rude. But over time, even quite innocent sounding labels like ‘special needs’ become terms of abuse.

This very first activity has introduced one of the most controversial issues in learning disabilities, that of the words to use. This course has chosen to use the term ‘learning disability’, as opposed to others like ‘intellectual disability’ or ‘learning difficulties’. Some people believe that one of the reasons labels change so frequently is to escape the stigma that accompanies learning disability. But as Cian said, it hasn’t worked!

Later in this session you will look at the pros and cons of labelling. But first, some definitions.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371