Stigma and physical disability
Stigma - what is it and how does it affect people who feel stigmatised?
The stigma around physical disability comes in many subtle ways; it’s not always obvious in-your-face stuff like someone saying ‘People like you aren’t welcome here’. Although that did happen to a woman I once met who, when told she and her wheelchair weren’t welcome in a shop, lowered herself to the floor and dragged herself around the aisles on her elbows, much to the shopkeeper’s embarrassment.
The stigma can be something subtle such as someone assuming that because a person uses a wheelchair or has a visual impairment, then they must have a carer (rather than a spouse or partner).
Or if they go out to work, then they must be ‘brave’ or ‘inspirational’. Rather than having a need to pay the mortgage and do something useful with their lives - like other, non-disabled people do.
People who are stigmatised by their community or society are seen as different and sometimes as a threat. For someone who is not disabled, the idea of becoming disabled themselves can be very scary, and when we feel scared of something or someone, we usually want to push it or them away - to keep them at a distance.
If you're on the receiving end of being stigmatised, it can feel very much like a rejection. Being rejected can leave you feeling:
low in self-esteem
That can be tough on top of the other challenges that can come with physical disability; lack of access to places, difficulties in finding a job, dealing with personal stuff like pain or parts of your body not working as they should, etc.
Unfortunately we can’t wave a magic wand and change other people’s attitudes overnight. What we can do is try to change how we ourselves think and feel. What I’ve found useful at times is to tell myself that ‘It’s not me that’s got the problem - it’s other people’, and to find ways of building up my own feelings of self-worth and self-esteem. There are a number of very good resources online that will help you discover what work for you.
I’ve also found that rather than get angry at people who treat you in a way that makes you feel stigmatised, it can be helpful simply to try to teach them a different way of treating you - most people don't mean to be offensive, they just don’t know what’s best to do.
Stigmatising of disabled people has been around for a very long time and that isn't likely to change any time soon. So it’s important to find a way of managing the feelings that this creates in you. Counselling is one method that can help.
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About Libby Webber
Libby Webber is a counsellor in Portsmouth, Hampshire. One of her specialisms is working with issues around disability - both disabled people themselves and members of their family.