I am conflicted. I do not know how to begin recording my many thoughts about inclusion and the underpinnings of our judgments. I have two personal ties to these topics, through experiences as a female pursuing science and through another (often unmentioned) stigmatized characteristic: disabilities.
Claude Steele’s “Identity and Intellectual Performance” showed just a small sample of the negative effects of stereotypes on the stereotyped person’s life. After his explanation of experimental findings- that women underperformed men when given a difficult math test unless they were told women typically out perform men on that specific test- I began to wonder about the number of women who turned away from certain areas of study because of this inherent discouragement. Then I thought about the number of people who are stigmatized in general, and how widespread this epidemic is. How do we stop this?
In an excerpt of the Hidden Brain, the author explained automated responses and how most of our thoughts are not under our own conscious control. Instead, we rely on heuristics and the “shortcuts” in our brain, most likely ingrained since birth from our environments. We associate certain people with certain feelings, and when these automatic responses takeover our actions, we can stigmatize others without recognizing their individuality.
While reflecting on this passage, I immediately thought about disabilities. As a daughter of a mother born with a progressive physical disability (paralysis that causes significant difficulty walking) and a granddaughter of a grandfather born with one arm, I have witnessed how they are stigmatized. I have witnessed the stares, the assumptions, the inappropriate questions. I have witnessed the lack of environmental access (by the way, something “adhering to regulations” may not actually be accessible for all- for example, double doors that do not fit large wheelchairs in between, present in a common fast food place). I have heard insensitive words describing physical disabilities that pain me to type right now- like cripple, gimpy, etc.- and even words that once were used medically for mental disabilities used in a derogatory manner to describe those with any disability at all- like retarded. People also associate mental disabilities with physical disabilities, which frustrates me; every single person is different, every disability is different, and neither should be “lumped” together and confined in a compartment for quick judgments.
And to every stare when I’m out with my mom or grandpa, I return a smile. This may be the only encounter that passerby ever had or will have with someone with this disability. I realize, this may be their “automatic response”. They are making “automatic judgments”, which we have all been primed to automatically make regarding groups of people. So what protects me from these automatic judgments about people with disabilities specifically?
First, I attribute my lack of (or at least, less present) automatic judgments on people with disabilities to how I was raised. My mom always said to include “disability” at the end of a description; she is a mother “with a disability” or “who has a physical disability” instead of “a disabled mother”. That makes me cringe to even write! I never once viewed her as disabled; I still don’t. She is my mother, first and foremost. Yes, her disability has contributed to the incredible human being she is today, and caused many struggles for her to overcome, but she is not her disability.
She also told me that really, it is a difference, not a “dis”ability. I refrained from writing “dis”ability this whole post so the reader would not get agitated, but truthfully the word in and of itself is hindering people with differing abilities. We all have differing abilities; why cast out one group because their differences may be apparent to the eye?
Lastly, I am thankful for my exposure to people with disabilities. I believe this exposure has allowed me to see people who may walk differently, sound differently, or act differently as individuals, versus as an “outcast” to “my group”.
How does this tie in with the deep discussion on other minorities? I believe the principles I have learned from my experience with a different and often unspoken minority group can extend throughout all stigmatized groups. As addressed specifically to disabilities above, it is crucial for the individual to be viewed as an individual, while still not ignoring or avoiding a part of that person and her or his journey. Small nuances signify the respect for the person as a whole- such as referring to “a person with a disability” instead of “the disabled person”- but perhaps more importantly, getting exposure early on to as many differences as possible is vital in combatting any “isms” (and discrimination in general). It becomes much more difficult to quickly categorize people at first glance when you have personal relationships from an early age that strengthen other associations with that characteristic. Children should be exposed and build relationships with people across abilities, backgrounds, races, genders, and any other characteristic that could potentially stigmatize a group of people. I believe there is hope through this exposure- we just need to establish avenues for enactment.