Updated: Feb 18
For most of history, people with disabilities as a community have been discriminated against across the world. In fact, the population with disabilities constitutes the world’s largest ‘unrecognized minority’ group. In many cultures, disability has been associated with curses, past karma, disease, dependence, and helplessness.
While talking about India, persons with disabilities constitute a significant part of the Indian population. Their numbers are more than the total population of many countries in the world, and India has one of the highest numbers of people with disabilities globally. If we talk about history, our Indian heritage has viewed persons with disabilities as contributing members of the larger society. From 320 to 480 A.D., workshops were set up for vocational training of persons with physical disabilities (Mukherjee, 1983)
It's quite evident that the current situation is not quite ideal and hasn't been for a long long time. People with disabilities are stigmatized in many ways, be it social avoidance where they are often left out of social activities, stereotyping where they are presumed to be helpless, unable to make their own decisions, and people with one disability, such as hearing impairment, are presumed to have other disabilities that they don't have, such as intellectual disability. They are denied jobs due to false assumptions, they are blamed for their disability, accused of using their disability to gain unfair benefits and quite tragically are more likely to be victims of physical or sexual violence than people without disabilities.
All of this leads to people with disabilities adopting negative beliefs about their disability and feeling ashamed or embarrassed about it. So why is such behavior prevalent?
We'll try to understand what stigma is, how does it work, and most importantly talk about how we can change our attitudes.
What is Stigma?
Public stigma refers to a set of negative attitudes and beliefs that motivate individuals to fear, reject, avoid, and discriminate against people. Self-stigma is the loss of self-esteem and self-efficacy that occurs when people facing the stigma, internalize it. This distinction between public and self-stigma is important when we want to understand, explain, and build strategies to change the stigma.
How does stigma work?
The socio-cognitive model describing stigma comprises of three components that make up this model are outlined in Fig. 1: stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination.
Stereotype — the positive or negative beliefs that we hold about the characteristics of social groups. For example, we may decide that “French people are romantic,” that “old people are incompetent,” or that “people with a disability are helpless.” And we may use those beliefs to guide our actions toward people from those groups.
Prejudice — an unjustifiable negative attitude toward an outgroup or toward the members of that outgroup. Prejudice can take the form of disliking, anger, fear, disgust, discomfort, and even hatred—the kind of affective states that can lead to behavior such as targeting people with disabilities in hate crimes.
Discrimination — The behavioral reaction to stereotypes and prejudices is called discrimination. Prejudice that yields anger can lead to hostile discriminatory behavior (e.g., physically harming a minority group). Fear or anger may also lead to discriminatory avoidance, e.g., employers do not want people with disabilities nearby so they do not hire them.
Our stereotypes and our prejudices are problematic because they may create discrimination — negative behaviors toward members of outgroups based on their group membership which are absolutely not justified. Discrimination is a major societal problem because it is so pervasive, takes so many forms, and has such negative effects on so many people. Even people who are paid to be unbiased may discriminate.
You may have had some experiences where you found yourself responding to another person on the basis of a stereotype or prejudice. Perhaps you then tried to get past these beliefs and to react to the person more on the basis of his or her individual characteristics. We like some people and we dislike others — this is quite natural — but we should not let a person’s skin color, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, ethnic background, or disability make these determinations for us.
Change in Stigma:
Social categorization is a basic part of our human nature and one that helps us to simplify our social worlds, to draw quick (if possibly inaccurate) conclusions about others, and to feel good about ourselves. But categorizing others may also lead to prejudice and discrimination, and it may even do so without our awareness. Because prejudice and discrimination are so harmful to so many people, we must all consciously work to get beyond them.
One variable that makes us less prejudiced is education. People who are more educated express fewer stereotypes and prejudice in general.
Another realm is Social Norms which define what is appropriate and inappropriate, and we can effectively change stereotypes and prejudice by changing the relevant norms about them.
The influence of social norms is powerful, and long-lasting changes in beliefs about outgroups will occur only if they are supported by changes in social norms. Prejudice and discrimination thrive in environments in which they are perceived to be the norm, but they die when the existing social norms do not allow it.
Discrimination, prejudice, and even hate crimes will be more likely to continue if people do not respond to or confront them when they occur. What this means is that if you believe that prejudice is wrong, you must confront it when you see it happening.
Confronting prejudice can lead other people to think that we are complaining and therefore to dislike us (Kaiser & Miller, 2001; Shelton & Stewart, 2004), but confronting prejudice is not all negative for the person who confronts. Although it is embarrassing to do so, particularly if we are not completely sure that the behavior was in fact prejudice, when we fail to confront, we may frequently later feel guilty that we did not (Shelton, Richeson, Salvatore, & Hill, 2006).
Call To Action:
Changing our stereotypes and prejudices is not easy, and attempting to suppress them may even backfire. However, with appropriate effort, we can reduce our tendency to rely on our stereotypes and prejudices.
One approach to changing stereotypes and prejudice is by changing social norms—for instance, through education and laws enforcing equality.
Prejudice will change faster when it is confronted by people who see it occurring. Confronting prejudice may be embarrassing, but it also can make us feel that we have done the right thing.
Intergroup attitudes will be improved when we can lead people to focus more on their connections with others.
Respect a person’s choice to downplay or highlight their disability in particular settings.
Don’t use negative words to describe disabilities. Words such as “tragedy” or “suffering” can convey a stigmatizing view of disability. People are not “confined to wheelchairs,” but rather use wheelchairs.
Develop concrete actions for students which can overcome prejudice and stigmatizing attitudes more easily and are an important target group for long-term change in social attitudes and behaviors.
Involve people with disabilities in the conception and implementation of any campaign and intervention, in order to raise self-esteem and empowerment and to challenge established social attitudes.
Disability is a complex experience that differs from person to person and changes over time. Listen to them to discover how you can be their best ally.
Finally, we need to remember that we aren't short of good ideas, like reflecting upon where we have been going wrong and how these wrongs can be undone. It's only the stubborn inability to act upon and correctly implement the many good ideas that every single one of us already possesses.
I want to conclude with something that we can all ponder upon, a statement by Stephen Hawking back in 2011:
Disability need not be an obstacle to success. We have a moral duty to remove the barriers to participation and to invest sufficient funding and expertise to unlock the vast potential of people with disabilities. Governments throughout the world can no longer overlook the hundreds of millions of people with disabilities who are denied access to health, rehabilitation, support, education, and employment, and never get the chance to shine.
Stangor, C., Jhangiani, R., Tarry, H., BC Open Textbook Project, & Open Textbook Library, (2014). Principles of social psychology.