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Epilepsy Health Center

Understanding and Coping with Stigma of Disabilities

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But now we get to modern times (at least what we consider to be modern). Overnight, our understanding about illness and disability and the threat it poses to each of us have changed. Certainly, persons with contagious diseases are still avoided and even isolated in special places we call “hospitals.” However, only a small fraction of those who are ill pose genuine harm to those that are healthy. People with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, autism, or epilepsy pose no threat of illness to those around them. However, society and culture are very slow to change. Vague feelings of apprehension that another’s illness poses a danger to oneself and one’s family still linger beneath our “logical thought” of only the past 150 years. Old feelings have not caught up with logic. There are still vague fears of harm from illness and disability present in even these “modern” times. People remain vaguely uncomfortable around a wheelchair, people are avoidant of behavior that seems unpredictable, and people can be frightened of the sudden loss of control from a seizure. These are thousands of years of feelings expressing themselves in modern day life.

Our logical selves know better. Society in general is beginning to understand the difference between contagion and a non-infectious health condition. Even with contagion we understand humane methods of protection that involve the care of the affected person rather than his or her rejection. But this is a work in progress and we as a society still have not had our ancient and once useful feelings and fears catch up to modern logic and present day state-of-the-art medical understanding. The result is that stigma still exists and is practiced among us. Stigma remains a real challenge in the social life of persons with physical and behavioral disorders. Stigma adds a social burden on top of the physical burden of a health disorder.

The task for this article is how to deal with stigma - specifically the stigma attached to physical disorders.

To begin with, there are two main types of physical conditions that are stigmatized. The first is where the physical or behavioral disorder is obvious to everyone and the second is where the disorder is hidden and not obvious to the casual observer. People with each type of condition, obvious or hidden, tend to have typical ways of dealing with the stigma.

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