She is not disabled. She has a disability.

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.

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8 thoughts on “She is not disabled. She has a disability.

  1. Dear Kristine, thank you for sharing your story. I felt the “cringe” you are mentioning, while reading your post and remembered various cringe moments of mine in similar situations. I really liked your choice of word as “cringe” that perfectly describes the my experience of the feeling/behavior: Like a punch on your core that affect you as a whole..

    I remember the karate movies in which the master tells the apprentice not to hit the core of the enemy, since it is not fair. And then I remember the self-help manuals that constantly warn us: strengthen your core, put muscles there as a barrier, be tough-skinned,, and so on –underlyingly saying that, life is not fair. Yet, apparently, most of the time, those be tough-skinned kind of mottos do not work, since we all expect for fairness.

    While reading your post, I also realize that I am being very self-conscious (and prone to be easily triggered) regarding the point of social-segregation because of this or that reason, because of my personal story. My grand grand family was living in a Ottoman Empire region where now Bulgaria is. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and Bulgaria became a separate country, they started to be called as “Turkish minority living in Bulgaria” and for sure, they were not fairly treated since they were not “from them”. In 1970s, when the Bulgarian government started to increase its oppression to the point of banning them to talk in Turkish, changing their names into Slavic ones and banning them to practice their cultural traditions, my family (with a big chunk of other Turkish people living in Bulgaria) has migrated to “home land” Turkey. Yet, when they migrated, Turkey was in a socioeconomic turmoil (as always), they were not welcomed as the “long waited children”, and they were called as “Bulgarian minority living in Turkey”, directly and indirectly saying that “you are not from us”. So, I basically grew up in my sub-culture, with my own sub-cultural value and belief system. However, ridiculously, when I moved to States, I started to be called as a “Turkish minority” again and expected to represent the Turkish-ness of all sorts, that I am definitely not identifying myself with 🙂

    So being a part of this story, I guess, helped me to be aware that the color, race, ethnicity variables are just the coincidental features that are not more than me, as you mention in your post that disability is not more than the person. That is why I believe, we should pay special attention to the personal stories showing that what makes us human and connect as under the umbrella of humanity is not the differences per se, but the similarities: similar cringes, similar expectations, similar humanness.. Thank you once again for sharing your story!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for this thoughtful response, and for sharing your story. I think sharing our personal stories- as you referenced, what makes us human- can add deeper connections between people and contribute to a greater understanding for who we are as individuals, and how we can relate to each other. Thank you again for writing about your unique experience and perspective- I really enjoyed reading your response!

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  2. Thank you for sharing your own experience with us, and your post is impressive, especially the idea of getting exposure to difference early. It is kind of hard for current children, because children with disability are recommended to go to special schools, thus they are separated. I agree with you that if children are exposed to children who has a disability from an early on age, they will learn more about how to better communicate without hurting them.
    I think of Krystalyn’s syllabus on Health Communication, and if this course works out, it will be really helpful for students who want to develop a career in health communication to decrease the stigmatization and provide better services.

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    1. Thank you for letting me know about Krystalyn’s syllabus- I will have to look at that when I think about methods we can use to help educate children on such an important matter. Thank you for commenting! 🙂

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  3. Kristine,

    What a great post. It reflects on so many important things we need to consider if we want to create an inclusive learning environment. We in engineering have a problem of recruiting and retaining students coming from minority groups. I think one of the problems is that engineering classrooms are not welcoming enough.

    Also, when we talk about inclusive pedagogy we usually think about being welcoming to people from different genders, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, religion, and beliefs. However, we tend to forget about people with different abilities like you mentioned. How many times do we think for example about the colors we use in our power point presentations? Do we consider that people can be color-blind? Do we always use colors to differentiate groups in our graphs? Or do we use forms for example? Do we offer (without the student asking) different options when students need to take a test in our class? Do we consider stress? do we consider that some noises, or light levels, or even smells can affect some people to the point that learning is almost not possible?

    That doesn’t mean that they are not good students, or that they don’t have the right to be involved in the learning environment.

    Again, thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow this is a touching post, i had my cringe moments while reading as well especially for this part “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.”. I totally get where you are coming from, i have a mother who was very ill for a period of time and she needed the aid of a wheelchair. I used o hate when people would stare as you struggle to get through those hard to open double doors.Howeve, Christine, it made us stronger individuals!!!!

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  5. Yes, this is a great post — and started a great discussion also! Thanks Kristine for sharing your story and especially your perspective, that is so kind and powerful at the same time. Thanks also Glasia for bringing the same type of sincere and positive story. In my perspective, far from being a difficult part of the course, the module about Inclusive Pedagogy is showing to be the most human, vibrant and powerful one!

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  6. Thank you for sharing. I was fortunate enough to have exposure to many wonderful individuals who had their own differing abilities through a camp as a teenager, and many of my experiences there still pop up in my hidden brain. I think that it is important to have exposure, to reopen our “norms” that we develop through common exposure. Thank you again for sharing.

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