Label Cans, Not People

Carol Liege in her kitchen. Photo Sarah Whiting

In the 1970s, there was a national effort to change stigmatizing labels applied to people with disabilities —then referred to as cripples, gimps, retards, nuts — to descriptive and positive qualities that described the problems, rather than the people. A media campaign, “Label Cans, Not People,” promoted a changed perception. For example, “blind children” became referred to as “children with special needs.”

I was working for the Massachusetts state government, and the change allowed us to develop programs for children with special needs in public schools instead of putting them away in institutions or segregating them in special schools. It allowed us to reevaluate thousands of people in terms of their abilities, rather than their disabilities, and move them back into the community.

There is currently a similar effort happening around dyslexia. Several people recently joined Sir Richard Branson in promoting a new LinkedIn skill choice, “dyslexic thinking.” Changing “dyslexia” to a skill rather than a hindrance boosts self-esteem, and allows teachers and employers to frame and work with this different way of navigating the world from a position of strength instead of a barrier.

In another example, Americans have dealt with smoking as an addiction without attaching the same level of stigma to it as we do other addictions. We praise those who are trying to quit the habit. We do not prevent people with this habit from moving into our neighborhoods, exposing us to secondhand smoke. Contrast that to our approach to people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs.

I do not know if we should add “sober thinking” to our LinkedIn skills, but why can’t drinking be more like smoking? Why can’t we have more programs aimed at skills to change drinking behavior before it becomes an addiction? Why can’t we reward and celebrate the people who seek help? Why can’t we change the label “alcoholic” to something less stigmatized, like “alcohol-impaired citizen,” or later, “responsible drinker”?

My Own Experience

In the 1980s, I realized that I had a drinking problem. At the time, I was running a national anti-drunk-driving public affairs campaign in Washington, D.C. I was working with federal agencies, national associations, and the media to promote positive alternatives to driving drunk. I returned home to Minnesota for treatment at Hazelden Center, where I identified myself as a “happy healthy non-drinker” instead of “an alcoholic.” I visualized myself as part of the 40 percent of U.S. adults who do not drink alcohol for health or religious reasons, according to a 2021 Gallup poll.

After “graduating” from Hazelden in 1986, I started a national nonprofit called “Great Alternatives” that promoted mocktails and other social drinks without alcohol. We hosted a non- alcoholic cocktail party at the White House. The American Red Cross built us a “mocktail bar” for national conventions.

I recently learned about Sober Sis, an online program for women that is anti-labeling and emphasizes the importance of having life goals more important than drinking. It teaches skills for changing behavior and offers online coaching.

If more programs provided positive skills and support that help people stop problem behaviors early — at the dawning of concern instead of when they “hit bottom” or are arrested — we could save tens of thousands of people and dollars.