Understanding and Coping with Stigma of Disabilities
The “Support Others” Coping Technique
Depending upon the nature of your physical or behavioral condition, it may become an immediate hurdle to successful social contacts with others. If you have an obvious disorder you will need to deal with it right off the bat. We discovered earlier that for many you encounter, the other person won’t have a clue how to respond to your condition. This makes them feel stupid and uncomfortable. The natural response is to try to get out of the situation as soon as socially possible. Remember, this is not a rejection or even stigma, but the consequence of the other person’s lack of experience and the discomfort the other person feels as a result.
Your task is very simple. Do everything you can to make the other person feel comfortable in your presence. One great technique is to ask for some kind of assistance. If you are in a wheelchair, ask for a push. If you are poorly sighted, ask whether the color of your clothes match today. Ask for the time of day - just ask for something! Immediately this should help put the other person at ease because she has just learned she has the power to help you.
Open the subject yourself. If you have an obvious disability, bring the matter up. “If you are like most people I’ve met, you are probably wondering how I...got in this wheelchair, ...lost my sight, ...started to have seizures, ...got a learning disability.” People are naturally curious and they will want to know how things started and details of what it is like to be affected by your condition. If you have an obvious disability, their attention is going to be drawn to it immediately. It does no good for both of you to try to pretend that the difference does not exist. All that does is create that awkward social situation people want to escape - both of you. Bringing up the matter breaks the ice and acknowledges the obvious. Once it is in the open you can begin teaching the other person about your disability.
Don’t stay on the subject. The person you are with will usually let you know how much they really want to know about your condition by asking questions about it. When the questions run out it is time to talk about other things. Remember, the purpose of the social contact is to help the other person get to know the WHOLE you. What other interests do you share? If you meet at a football game, talk about the sport and leave your disability behind. If you are at a school club meeting, talk about the club. If you are at a church social, talk about who came to the meeting. Ask about kids. Ask about the other person’s hobbies, work, or interests if any are mentioned. In other words, start becoming more of a person than your stigma. Moving to common topics increases the other person’s sense of confidence that they can carry on a conversation with you without embarrassing gaps or pauses. It also gives them permission to leave your disability as an obligatory subject of attention and conversation.