by Yomna Elshamy
What to do when you look at someone and only see a label? I was faced with this dilemma on my first day volunteering with youth who have Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). You see, before that day I spent a month reading about the disorder, watching videos, being told all of the symptoms and issues that accompany FASD. Research papers focus on those who are living with FASD as subjects—it makes sense since they have to remain objective, however, it directly impacted how I viewed them. On my first day meeting real people who live every day with FASD, I saw them only as their disorder.
That day, I walked up to a group of people carrying colourful umbrellas, waiting in line to be part of the K Days parade. I was so nervous because I didn’t know how to act or what to say. I spoke with the coordinator of the program first (I have met her before so I was comfortable approaching her) and she began introducing me to everyone. Someone came up to me, shook my hand, smiled and told me his name. He was so warm and welcoming; you see he was just a 16-year-old boy, who was so excited to be part of the parade. He started talking about basketball, and how hot it was that day. Immediately I thought he was funny, loud, happy and nothing more.
The parade started, so I wanted to go to the side and watch them walk proudly representing the Edmonton’s Fetal Alcohol Network. The coordinator asked me to walk with them and I explained that I have no experience with their program and felt that I didn’t deserve to walk amongst them yet. She brushed aside my objections and invited me to just walk. So I did, mostly because it would seem insolent and stubborn if I didn’t. During that walk, I got to learn their names and hear stories of previous parades that they participated in.
The moment I met them and they told me their names and their hobbies, my perception began to change. I watched them greet the crowd with joy and twirl their umbrellas, and it dawned on me that they are more than just people with FASD.
Now I know that labelling is not a new concept, I have discussed it with others, inside and outside of the classroom for years. I also did not think of myself as a judgmental person. I thought that I would be aware when I label someone. I thought I wouldn’t fall into this trap, yet I did. Because it is easier than you think to read a paper, do the research and forget who you are reading about. I needed to see names, faces and colourful umbrellas to remind me that they are more than just a label.
So I want to thank all of them, from the bottom of my heart, for being so open. I want to implore you, to go beyond examining the concept of labelling and spend time with a group you never interacted with. Confront your assumptions head-on, because it’s easier than you think to neatly place everyone in a box. Sometimes you don’t even notice you do it, I didn’t.