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Understanding and Coping with Stigma of Disabilities

By Robert J Mittan, PhD
WebMD Feature from “Exceptional Parent” Magazine

Having a disability or chronic health condition saddles the person with more than just the physical complaint. One has to struggle with the social meaning of that disorder as well. Often society is not very accepting of illness and disability and the person affected becomes stigmatized as a result. Stigma is a common problem among the disabled community. It not only affects the person with the disability, but may extend to include his or her whole family as well. The person is shunned. Social opportunities are denied. Self-esteem suffers. I’m sure you know the drill.

Stigma is an interesting animal. For millennia stigma served a vital role in preserving the welfare of human society. There were two main types of stigma applied to persons. One was the stigma applied to the person who could not be trusted or who somehow posed a threat to society’s values. This was the stigma reserved for robbers, murderers, the lower classes, and slaves. Persons considered treacherous or capable of harming others if given the opportunity. Of course, the stigma was not always fair, especially in the case of lower classes and slaves, who could be honorable and compassionate people. But overall, the discrimination kept the social classes safe from the possibility of threat.

The second vital role stigma played across the millennia was to keep society safe from illness. It is only in very recent times that mankind has understood the cause of illness and disability. Pasteur showed the role of germs in the spread of sickness only 150 years ago. For thousands of years before Pasteur mankind understood that it was possible to become ill from close contact with someone who was ill. For thousands of years the sick and disabled were reasonably (for those times) seen as a threat to one’s own health, whether through contact, through magic, through possession, or though evil. Mankind’s ignorance said the best way to keep your health was to avoid all of those who were ill or disabled. Thus all who were sick and disabled were stigmatized and outright avoided by the rest of (healthy) society. The stigma connected to illness performed the highly essential role of preserving the health of others. For thousands of years both kinds of stigma were important human adaptations.

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.

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