...they suffer from us."
A topic that often comes up when discussing the intersections of theology and disability is the place of lables like "disabled," "person with disabilities," or even a medical diagnosis such as "Down Syndrome." Labels are both gift and tyranny. Labels are a gift, because they name something and in so doing provide information which helps shape our interactions. Naming a tree "evergreen" shapes our expectations about what will happen when the autumn rolls around. But as anyone knows, anyone at least who has read Foucault or has wondered why people don't like being labled, labels can be tyrannical. They carry information and in so doing can locate us in a field of wisdom which helps us liver our lives together. However, in carrying limited information, they highlight only specific facets of life or can impose a singular conception on a person's life. This is something which resorting to so-called "people first" language does not remedy. The shift from "disabled person" to "person with a disablity" does not in reality accomplish much. Sure, one would say, but the latter admits that the person is first a person and then asserts that their disability is only a facet of their story. In reality, the former does as well or the person in "disabled person" would be redundant. The reason why people don't like to be labeled in general is that one's character exceeds any single label. However, as I've argued the use of labels should not be discarded, but perhaps they should be used penitently. The penitential use of labels carries a remorse that we may be too separated from those around us, a separation which makes it impossible to use a person's name. Penitential use of labels admits that there is something to be overcome, it pulls us in closer until the labels are no longer necessary. This turns labels into cultural artifacts, both necessary and useful but in the end temporary. It also allows us to be open to seeing the ways in which our labels may be violent and oppressive. So, perhaps when we speak, using our new and improved labels like "person with developmental disabilities," we should take it as a sign that we have more work to do, until we can say something like:
"This is my friend, Walton."