Words (and Labels) Matter: Differences, not Disabilities

One of the biggest challenges our students face is often the cultural norm of low expectations. Although the feeling may vary for each individual student—dependent upon what their experiences were prior to coming to Greenwood School—students with diagnosed learning differences can sometimes feel “trapped” by their labels and the accompanying assumptions people make about them. Let’s take a look together today at the basics of labeling theory, and how a simple shift in language generates an entirely different attitude that makes a world of difference for our students and their families.

Labeling Theory

In short, labeling theory is a scientific study of what many may call the “self-fulfilling prophecy;” that people will tend to gradually identify with the assumed and/or stated common characteristics or definitions of the labels and categories that those around them assign to them. Although sociologist Emile Durkheim is generally credited with the initial studies that formed labeling theory in the late 1800s, George Herbert Mead brought the study of societal labels into mainstream thinking with his social construction theories that were popularized in the 1960s by Howard Becker (Crossman, 2020).

Mead believed that humans form our concept of self by applying labels assigned to us and by how others interact with us based on those labels. That constructed concept of self develops and reinforces everything we believe about ourselves, about what we are capable of doing, about how others view us, and about how we should act. Mead’s work became known as Social Behaviorism (Routledge, 2016). Years later, Urie Bronfenbrenner expanded upon Mead’s work with his Ecological Systems Theory of Human Development, which accounted for factors of family, economics, race, gender, religion, social (friends), school format and environment, and many other influences that all interact with each other and with the individual to constantly form and re-form one’s definition of self (Patel, 2011).  

In short, everything we interact with shapes how we view ourselves, and subsequently influences how we interact with the challenges in our lives; and most of those influences can be attributed to a label of some sort—so we must be cautious in our use of labels and categories of people!

Why do we say “differences” at Greenwood?

The term “disability” is a medical construct that is necessary to define a diagnosis. For students with a learning difference, that means that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) assigns a definition to differences like dyslexia, autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, etc., which then enables agencies (such as school systems) to determine appropriate and needed supports and services based upon the diagnosis (Morelli & Dombeck, 2020). However, this is where that label can take on a life of its own; as the student gets older and notices that they sometimes struggle with certain academic tasks more than some of their peers do, or peers notice their differences and react to them, the student may begin to think of themselves in terms of the label. What are the potential consequences here?

  • An IEP that gives the student and their parent(s)/guardian(s) the impression that grade-level work is not achievable; it becomes difficult to be motivated to do your best if you already believe it isn’t going to be good enough (this is why we use a Personalized Education Plan at Greenwood instead of an IEP—our PEP removes the clinical language and approaches the student as an individual with strengths and opportunities for growth!).
  • Students identified as “disabled” are two to three times more likely to be bullied by peers (National Bullying Prevention Center, 2020). This is one reason we strongly emphasize “kindness and mutual respect” in all interactions at Greenwood School!
  • Just over half of high school students with learning differences intend to go to college—often because they are convinced that they cannot (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018). Approximately two-thirds of our graduates go on to college, and our guidance program is designed to help all students determine their “best next step” after graduation.
  • Low self-esteem can create a lack of motivation, learned helplessness, and social dysfunction such as “acting out” in attempts to avoid work, difficulties in making and keeping friends, etc. (Pandy, 2012). We strive for relationships that build students up!

By making a deliberate adjustment to the words we use to describe and encourage our students, we fundamentally alter their construction of self (see comments above about Bronfenbrenner’s theories). In short, a “disability” label can quickly become self-limiting. A “difference,” however, is something that can be interpreted as a neutral part of one’s identity, and with proper support and encouragement, it can be leveraged as a strength and celebrated! By caring for and addressing the whole student and by injecting positivity into every part of their lives that we can influence, Greenwood provides the healthiest environment to help our students change their mindset from one of limitation to one of growth and optimism. We have high expectations for all our students, and make the effort to support them appropriately so that they begin to believe that they can achieve them!

We are proud to partner with organizations like Connectable Jax (https://connectablejax.com/), who are leading the effort nationwide to change the language and thought about learning differences. Together, we can advocate more effectively to ensure our students receive both support and respect.


Crossman, A. (2020). An overview of labeling theory.

Morelli, A. O., & Dombeck, M. (2020). Criticisms of disability labeling.

National Bullying Prevention Center. (2020). Students with disabilities and bullying: 5 important facts.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). Students with disabilities.

Pandy, R. I. (2012). Learning disabilities and self-esteem

Patel P.A. (2011). Bioecological theory of development. In Goldstein S., & Naglieri J.A. (eds.),
Boston, MA: Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-0-387-79061-9_438

Routledge. (2016). Social theory rewired: George Herbert Mead.