The word stigma comes from the Greek word for “mark.” Generally, stigma is a negative set of beliefs about people with specific characteristics. For example, ethnic or sexual minorities, or people with unusual facial appearance may encounter stigma.
People with disabilities have been stigmatized throughout history. In many cultures, disability has been associated with curses, disease, dependence, and helplessness. Disability stigma can play out in a number of ways, including:
Social Avoidance – People with disabilities may be left out of social activities, or they may find that friends become more distant after they develop a disability. People may be hesitant to make eye contact or start a conversation with someone who has a visible disability.
Stereotyping – People with disabilities may be presumed to be helpless, unable to care for themselves, or unable to make their own decisions. People with one disability, such as a speech impairment, may be presumed to have other disabilities they don’t have, such as an intellectual disability.
Discrimination – People with disabilities may be denied jobs, housing, or other opportunities due to false assumptions or stereotypes about disabilities. This still occurs today, despite disability rights laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Condescension – People with disabilities may be coddled or over-protected due to perceptions of their helplessness.
Blaming – People may be blamed for their disability, or accused of using their disability to gain unfair benefits.
Internalization – People with disabilities may themselves adopt negative beliefs about their disability and feel ashamed or embarrassed about it.
Hate Crimes and Violence – People with disabilities may be targeted in hate crimes. They are more likely to be victims of physical or sexual violence than people without disabilities.