Labeling is required to be included for special education. Under current law, to receive special education services, a child must be identified as having a disability (i.e., labeled) and, in most cases, must be further classified into one of that state’s categories, such as mental retardation or learning disabilities. In practice, therefore, a student becomes eligible for special education and related services because of membership in a given category. (IDEA allows children ages 3 to 9 to be identified as developmentally delayed and receive special education services without the use of a specific disability label.)

Some educators believe that the labels used to identify and classify exceptional children today stigmatize them and serve to deny them opportunities in the mainstream (e.g., Danforth & Rhodes, 1997; Kliewer & Biklen, 1996; Reschly, 1996). Others argue that a workable system of classifying exceptional children (or their exceptional learning needs) is a prerequisite to providing needed special educational services (e.g., Kauffman, 1999; MacMillan, Gresham, Bocian, & Lambros, 1998) and that reducing the stigma associated with disability requires honest and open recognition of the condition and that using more “pleasant” terms minimizes and devalues the individual’s situation and need for supports.

The stigma of cancer has not abated because people tried to cloak it with euphemisms, new terms considered more upbeat and less offensive. Imagine our reaction if someone were to say, “We no longer use the word cancer; now we use less unpleasant terms, such as prolific cells or challenging tissue.” The stigma of cancer has abated because people were encouraged to confront it for what it is, treat it, and prevent it. Cancer of any type is not nice, not desirable, not anything we would wish for someone we love, but something to be acknowledged and treated. We want people who don’t have it to avoid it if they can, even as we want our society to be accepting and supportive of those who have it. We should work for a similar understanding and response to disability—a realistic, no-nonsense depiction of what it is and a loving, supportive attitude toward those who have disabilities. (Kauffman, 2003, p. 196)

Classification is a complex issue involving emotional, political, and ethical considerations in addition to scientific, fiscal, and educational interests (Luckasson & Reeve, 2001). As with most complex issues, there are valid perspectives on both sides of the labeling question. The reasons most often cited for and against the classification and labeling of exceptional children are the following: 

Possible Benefits of Labeling

  • Labeling recognizes meaningful differences in learning or behavior and is a first and necessary step in responding responsibly to those differences. As Kauffman (1999) points out, “Although universal interventions that apply equally to all, . . . can be implemented without labels and risk of stigma, no other interventions are possible without labels. Either all students are treated the same or some are treated differently. Any student who is treated differently is inevitably labeled. . . . When we are unwilling for whatever reason to say that a person has a problem, we are helpless to prevent it. . . . Labeling a problem clearly is the first step in dealing with it productively”.
  • Labeling may lead to a protective response in which children are more accepting of the atypical behavior of a peer with disabilities than they would be of a child without disabilities who emitted that same behavior. (A protective response—whether by peers, parents, or teachers—toward a child with a disability can be a disadvantage if it creates learned helplessness and diminishes the child’s chances to develop independence [Weisz, Bromfield, Vines, & Weiss, 1985].)
  • Labeling helps professionals communicate with one another and classify and evaluate research findings.
  • Funding and resources for research and other programs are often based on specific categories of exceptionality.
  • Labels enable disability-specific advocacy groups (e.g., parents of children with autism) to promote specific programs and spur legislative action.
  • Labeling helps make exceptional children’s special needs more visible to policymakers and the public.

Possible Disadvantages of Labeling

  • Because labels usually focus on disability, impairment, and performance deficits, some people may think only in terms of what the individual cannot do instead of what she can or might be able to learn to do.
  • Labels may stigmatize the child and lead peers to reject or ridicule the labeled child. (Not all labels used to classify children with disabilities are considered equally negative or stigmatizing. One factor possibly contributing to the large number of children identified as learning disabled is that many professionals and parents view “learning disabilities” as a socially acceptable classification [MacMillan, Gresham, Siperstein, & Bocian, 1996].)
  • Labels may negatively affect the child’s self-esteem.
  • Labels may cause others to hold low expectations for a child and differentially treat her on the basis of the label, which may result in a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, in one study, student teachers gave a child labeled “autistic” more praise and rewards and fewer verbal corrections for incorrect responses than they gave a child labeled “normal” (Eikeseth & Lovaas, 1992). Such differential treatment could impede the rate at which a child learns new skills and contribute to the development and maintenance of a level of performance consistent with the label’s prediction.
  • Labels that describe a child’s performance deficit often acquire the role of explanatory constructs (e.g., “Sherry acts that way because she is emotionally disturbed”).
  • Even though membership in a given category is based on a particular characteristic (e.g., deafness), there is a tendency to assume that all children in a category share other traits as well, thereby diminishing the detection and appreciation of each child’s uniqueness (Gelb, 1997; Smith & Mitchell, 2001).
  • Labels suggest that learning problems are primarily the result of something wrong within the child, thereby reducing the systematic examination of and accountability for instructional variables as the cause of performance deficits. This is an especially damaging outcome when the label provides a built-in excuse for ineffective instruction (e.g., “Jalen hasn’t learned to read because he’s learning disabled”).
  • A disproportionate number of children from some minority and diverse cultural groups are included in special education programs and thus have been assigned disability labels.
  • Special education labels have a certain permanence; once labeled, it is difficult for a child to ever again achieve the status of simply being just another kid.
  • Classifying exceptional children requires the expenditure of a great amount of money and professional and student time that might be better spent in planning and delivering instruction (Chaikind, Danielson, & Brauen, 1993).

Clearly, there are strong arguments both for and against the classification and labeling of exceptional children. On the one hand, most of the possible benefits are experienced not by individual children but by groups of children, parents, and professionals who are associated with a certain disability category. On the other hand, all of the potential negative aspects of labeling affect the individual child who has been labeled. Of the possible advantages of labeling listed previously, only the first two could be said to benefit an individual child directly. However, the argument that disability labels associate diagnosis with proper intervention is tenuous at best, particularly when the kinds of labels used in special education are considered. What Becker, Engelmann, and Thomas (1971) wrote more than three decades ago is still true today: “[The labels] rarely tell the teacher who can be taught in what way. One could put five or six labels on the same child and still not know what to teach him or how”.

Although the pros and cons of using disability category labels have been widely debated for several decades, neither conceptual arguments nor research has produced a conclusive case for the total acceptance or absolute rejection of labeling practices. Most of the studies conducted to assess the effects of labeling have produced inconclusive, often contradictory, evidence and have generally been marked by methodological weakness.

Alternatives to Labeling

A number of alternative approaches to classifying exceptional children that focus on educationally relevant variables have been proposed over the years (e.g., Adelman, 1996; Hardman, McDonnell, & Welch, 1997; Iscoe & Payne, 1972; Sontag, Sailor, & Smith, 1977). For example, Reynolds, Zetlin, and Heistad (1996) proposed a system they call “20/20 analysis” as an alternative, nonlabeling approach to the traditional, categorically driven model of special education. The lowest-achieving 20% and the highest-achieving 20% of students would be identified and eligible for broad (noncategorical) approaches to improvement of learning opportunities.

In 20/20 Analysis, we begin with measuring progress of students in important areas of learning and identifying those at the margins—those who are not learning well and those showing top rates of learning. . . . At all times the focus is on outcome variables. . . . The idea is to look to the margins in learning progress and to identify those who most urgently require adapted instruction. (Reynolds & Heistad, 1997, p. 441)

Some noted special educators have suggested that exceptional children be classified according to the curriculum and skill areas they need to learn.

But if we shouldn’t refer to these special children by using those old labels, then how should we refer to them? For openers, call them Rob, Amy, and Jose. Beyond that, refer to them on the basis of what you’re trying to teach them. For example, if a teacher wants to teach Brandon to compute, read, and comprehend, he might call him a student of computation, reading, and comprehension. We do this all the time with older students. Sam, who attends Juilliard, is referred to as “the trumpet student”; Jane, who attends Harvard, is called “the law student.” (T. C. Lovitt, personal communication, January 14, 2002)

In a system similar to this, called curriculum-based measurement, students are assessed and classified relative to the degree to which they are learning specific curriculum content (Deno, 1997; Howell & Nolet, 2000; Jones, 2001). Educators who employ curriculum-based measurement believe that it is more important to assess (and thereby classify) students in terms of acquisition of the knowledge and skills that make up the school’s curriculum than to determine the degree to which they differ from the normative score of all children in some general physical attribute or learning characteristic.

Even though curriculum-based assessment is being used more frequently, use of the traditional labels and categories of exceptional children is likely to continue. The continued development and use of educationally relevant classification systems, however, make it more likely that identification and assessment will lead to effective instructional programs for children, promote more educationally meaningful communication and research among professionals, and perhaps decrease some of the negative aspects of current practices.