The Stigma on People with Disabilities: What You Can Do to Reduce It

Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin top-billed “Me Before You,” a book-turned-movie love story about a paraplegic falling in love with his quirky caregiver. Emilia’s character Lou must convince Will, a handsome banker disabled by a motorcycle accident, that life is worth living despite his disability.

Backlash from the disabled community

Although it may have had good intentions about giving the disabled community representation in today’s media, the film’s ending sparked outrage from the disabled rights activist groups. One of the groups that strongly opposed the film is Not Dead Yet. One of its members, Ellen Clifford, said that the story is a gross misrepresentation of the lives of a majority of people with disabilities.

She explains that the story sends the message that a life with a disability is not a life worth living. The portrayal of Will’s character reinforces the stigma that disabled people’s lives are confined within the physical limitations of their disability. Ryan O’Connell, a writer with cerebral palsy, adds that the film reminds people with disabilities of their interactions with able-bodied people, that it’s usually with a measure of pity.

Disability stigma

People with disabilities have been dealing with stigma throughout history, and this manifests through the following ways:

  • Social Avoidance – People with disabilities tend to get isolated when able-bodied people choose to leave them out of social activities. People are hesitant to interact or even make eye contact with someone who has a visible disability.
  • Stereotyping – People with disabilities are almost always presumed to be helpless, unable to take care of themselves, and incapable of deciding on their own. People also assume that those with a specific disability, such as speech impairment, have other disabilities they don’t have, like intellectual disabilities. Due to this presumption, people always look at disabled individuals with pity.
  • Discrimination – Even with disability rights laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, people living with disabilities still deal with discrimination. Society denies them of housing, jobs, transportation, entry to private and public places, and other opportunities due to false assumptions about their condition.
  • Hate crime – People with disabilities are a common target of hate crimes, along with members of the LGBT community and people of color. The FBI reports that in 2017, there were 116 hate crime offenses against disabled people. This is a 65 percent increase from last year’s 70. A lot of hate crimes are often unreported due to varying reporting protocols per state and victims’ hesitation to report the crime, among others.

With an increase in hate and discrimination crimes directed toward people with disabilities and different disability rights groups clamoring the eradication of the stereotypes surrounding their community: how do we address the stigma on people living with disabilities?

Choose the right words

The American Psychological Association (APA) emphasizes the importance of choosing appropriate words when referring or talking to people with disabilities, especially since they represent a form of diversity. The APA says that it’s best to “put people first.” This means that instead of referring to them as “disabled people,” it’s better to use “people with disabilities.” This reverts the focus from the condition to the person himself or herself. It also reduces the notion that people with disabilities are defined and limited by their conditions.

Participate in effecting social change

Transforming society into a more inclusive one is everyone’s business. There are organizations comprised of disability lawyers, qualified disability advocates, and parents of children with disabilities who advance the civil rights of people with disabilities through legislation. However, you can also help promote social inclusivity in small ways, like not using the reserved parking spaces and public restrooms for people with disabilities. These are common regulations that everyone should observe but still don’t follow.

Don’t romanticize disability

Woman with kid with disability

It’s a common perception that people living with disabilities are “brave” or “inspiring” for enduring their physical conditions and going about their daily lives. “Inspiration porn,” or stories about disabled kids running marathons and the like, have become highly engaging content on social media. But statements like these can come off as patronizing. Praising them for doing normal things like eating at a restaurant alone or going up the stairs can feel belittling because it springs from a pre-notion that they’re not capable of doing these things. But they are just as capable as the next person.

Everyone should participate in trying to change the norm. The life of people with disabilities is difficult because of a society that barely accommodates their needs, not because of their physical condition. Their life is only different, not less.

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