Warning Signs


BY: Rick Rader, MD

So what came first, our inherent stupidity or the lawyers who insisted that we be protected from ourselves?

Ancient Roman and Medieval cartographers (mapmakers) knew enough about the potential danger of explorers encountering fire breathing dragons to indicate on maps of unchartered territories, “Here be dragons.” That was enough to serve as a warning. There was no need to elaborate by stating that, “Dragons may eat you and your vessel; causing delays and even death.”
So what came first, our inherent stupidity or the lawyers who insisted that we be protected from ourselves? While the ancient orators of Athens were perhaps the first lawyers, there is no evidence of crossbows carrying the warning, “Do not point the arrow at yourself,” or, “This potion is intended to poison your enemy, do not test it on yourself.” So when exactly did manufacturers decide that “warning labels” had to not only protect us but insult us?

How do warning labels insult us? Consider the following caution labels:
• “Shin pads cannot protect any part of the body they do not cover.” – On a pair of shin guards made for bicyclists.
• “Caution: Do not spray in eyes.” – On a container of underarm deodorant.
• “Do not use while sleeping.” – On a hair dryer
• “Do not drive with sunshield in place.” – On a cardboard sunshield that keeps the sun off the dashboard of a parked car.
• “Remember, objects in the mirror are actually behind you.” – On a motorcycle helmet-mounted rear-view mirror.

The list is endless, as is our stupidity; and our supply of lawyers. Ground zero for “stupid warning labels” was the case of the lawsuit from a McDonald’s customer who spilled hot coffee on her lap resulting in coffee containers carrying the warning, “Contents are hot.”
This was out “stupidified” by the case of the driver of the RV (motor home) who walked to the back of the RV to make lunch after engaging the “cruise control,” causing the RV manufacturer to post a label on the dashboard indicating “Please remain at the wheel while using cruise control.”

Maybe the special needs community should start adopting this model by posting “warning labels” on individuals with challenging conditions. It would play out with:
• “Do not stop me from flapping my hands” – On an individual with autism
• “Do not ask me to explain the anthropic principle.” – On an individual with an intellectual disability.
• “Do not give me a hot dog” – On an individual with documented dysphagia
• “Do not ask me to tell you where it hurts” – On an individual incapable of vocalic communication.
• “Do not put me in my pajamas at 4:00 pm” – On an individual that you are responsible for providing meaningful activities and opportunities.
• “Do not expect me to floss daily” – On an individual with limited fine motor skills.

And while we might think these are stupid, dumb and moronic (the same three words that have been used to describe individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities) the reality is that they are not so far fetched. We still find examples of mainstream (as opposed to those in the special needs community) people thinking, acting and relating in stupid ways to our family, friends, colleagues and co-workers with disabilities.

The stupidity is not the same stupidity that requires a microwave oven to provide the sticker indicating, “Not to be used to dry wet pets.” It’s the stupidity that is derived from indifference, insensitivity and inconsideration. It’s the type of stupidity that is rooted in people not caring enough about people to learn, understand and appreciate that a certain level of mindfulness is required to interact, approach and support people with novel distractions. It’s not the stupidity that lights up a Stanford-Binet, Wechsler or Kaufman Battery. It’s the kind of stupidity that has forced people with disabilities to deal with the short end of the stick since sticks have been assigned.

What confidence can we have in people being left to their own devices (which has historically been the root for innovation, invention and creation) when we are obligated to “Remove occupants from the stroller before folding it,” or “Do not iron clothes on body,” (on packaging for a package of Silly Putty, “Do not use as ear plugs.” At least some of the warning signs posted
in the past reflected some semblance of intelligence and real-world perceptiveness, “Beware the Ides of March” (did not relate to the dangers of ingesting or inhaling them). The state flag of Texas advises, “Don’t tread on me.” Isaac Newton warned earthlings not to look directly at a solar eclipse. In 1966 a pack of cigarettes warned that, “Cigarette smoking may be hazardous
to your health” (but they said the same thing about listening to rock ‘n roll, wearing tight jeans and reading comic books). By the way, in case you were stymied by the reference to the “anthropic principle” it’s the philosophical consideration that observations of the physical universe must be compatible with the conscious and sapient life that observes it. See I told you not to ask someone with an intellectual disability to comment on it; or even a recent Princeton grad. Perhaps the single most significant point to ponder in reflecting on warning signs is that warning sign provided by Benilde Little. “Just take this as a warning. Know that there’s always a price for not being yourself.”

In his 87th year, the artist Michelangelo
(1475 -1564) is believed to have said “Ancora imparo” (I am still learning). Hence, the name for my monthly observations and comments.
— Rick Rader, MD, Editor-in-Chief, EP Magazine
Director, Morton J. Kent Habilitation Center
Orange Grove Center, Chattanooga, TN