The Labels We Bear
By Lauren De-Lay Curcio
The word label stems from a Germanic term similar to that of ribbon, or to be more precise, a narrow strip. Although the connotations have changed and usage has expanded, to label something or someone continues to restrict that entity to a narrow strip of understanding.
That is, of course, if we let it.
Heidi Lieb-Williams, a creative entrepreneur living in Alaska, was labeled a lot of things as a child, teenager, and young adult. As labels do, they came from a place of misunderstanding from teachers, peers, and Heidi herself:
Weird, slow, stupid, developmentally delayed. Failure.
For the first thirty-five years of Heidi’s life, she tried to fight the labels thrown her way and figure out the right label . She laments that those around her "couldn’t find a box to put [her] in” as she didn’t fit any specific label that professionally or informally tried to diagnose her.
When teachers established that she couldn’t understand the content of the classes, she was professionally labeled: Cognitively impaired.
Bearing that label and being restricted to that diagnosis frustrated Heidi. She knew she wasn’t dumb and she knew she was capable, but she recalls specific moments where, even though she followed the societal rules given to her, she was not able to fit in. Things that were so easy for others, making friends, learning, simple tasks, multi-tasking, were all great challenges for Heidi.
Heidi worked to figure out what she was doing wrong, and finally, when Heidi was thirty-five, she was given the label that truly began to define her: Autistic.
For Heidi, this was the label she needed; the label of Autism "helps [her] understand the holes in [her] understanding” and it helps her focus and expand on her abilities rather than narrow herself based on her disabilities.
Wearing her new label proudly, Heidi shifted all the things she couldn’t do into all the things she could do, with the list still growing:
She is creative, so she started a business to sell beautiful, hand-made, one-of-a-kind items. She is focused and deeply passionate, so she writes scripts and acts.
She is a project person, so she takes on one task at a time to complete with intention.
Heidi recognizes that her label is the help she needed because she can see beyond the restrictions, but she also recognizes and works to change the limitations placed on her because of her label. When people hear the word Autism, they narrow the abilities of that person, thus narrowing their understanding and their ability to accept.
With her business, Puzzled With Purpose , Heidi hopes others will do away with their narrow and restrictive understanding of those with Autism. Her company is not only a platform on which she stands to share her own experience with Autism, it is also a way for her to advocate for the Autistic community and remind others that with that label comes a contribution of so many unique skills and talents.
Heidi wants to change people’s perceptions and actively works towards more acceptance and love. She speaks publicly about Autism to allow others to learn more about the diagnosis. She promotes her business and continues to craft quality items to share with others her talents and tremendous abilities. She is in the process of writing a children’s book about Autism to further expand the label and promote acceptance and understanding.
For Heidi, the Germanic connotation for label is just a simple misinterpretation. Instead of being synonymous with a narrow strip, we should all work to allow a label to become an ongoing, fluid ribbon of personality and character and talent and diversity. In this sense, we have the power to expand our labels and empower ourselves and our community through acceptance and tolerance. And, in the meantime, perhaps we can just work to refocus all labels to truly capture abilities, not disabilities.
Discarding labels that set us back and owning labels that lift us up is the first step and the one in which Heidi is proud to be labeled: focused, creative, determined, passionate. Autistic.