Shaun Webster is 43, single with three children and two grand-children. He works for an organisation called Change as an international project worker.
I know nothing about ‘Change’ nor the role of an international project worker. So why is Shaun mentioned here?
He was awarded an MBE in the 2015 Queen’s birthday honours list for services to people with learning disabilities and their families.
Well, I’m so glad that the awarding bodies recognise such service. But again, why are we thinking about him?
I’ll come back to that in a minute.
Think now of a 14 year old boy whose father labelled him a dummy who would ‘never get a job, never live on his own nor have relationships.’ … A boy whose first job as a young adult was sweeping the floor of a warehouse, subjected to verbal bullying and abusive tomfoolery, to the extent that he felt ‘tiny and small’ and thought he would be nothing….
… A boy who eventually became an international project worker who was awarded an MBE for services to people with learning disabilities and their families.
Yes, the same Shaun Webster – about whom a young woman who had lived in an institution in Bulgaria said ‘I want to be like you’. She wanted to be a role model, and now mentors children moving out of institutions.
His father could not see beyond the label. A so-called ‘dummy’, he believed, would never live the sort of life that most of us take for granted.
And with that lens clouding his vision, he would have been blind to all the things his son could do. He would have seen Shaun as lacking the potential to develop, to change, to learn anything.
And that is the tragedy of treating people like jamjars by sticking a label on them.
The limiting effect of labels
Labels ‘fix’ people – and then we treat those people according to how we have labelled them. Marshall Rosenberg noticed just how often clinical psychologists treated clients/patients according to their diagnostic label rather than as individual human beings. He found this deeply disturbing and preventing him from establishing a real connection with his patients.
The potential harm isn’t confined to negative labels. Even when our labels are positive we run the risk of blinding ourselves to the complexity of each human being.
Shaun had a different perspective. He said of himself: ‘I have a learning disability but that doesn’t define me’.
Look out for when you’re in danger of succumbing to ‘jam jar syndrome’ – sticking a label on people and then relating to them according to your label rather than who they really are and what they might become.