One of the greatest joys of all time is watching a small child as she or he discovers something never seen before. She asks (sometimes over and over again), “What’s that?” “What’s THAT?” And, as a patient adult, you answer—after all, you have the opportunity to introduce the child to the world through your eyes, with your perspective. If you’re like me, you love the natural curiosity, as it is a reminder of what it is like to experience the world anew.
Research tells us—as does our experience—that children view things that are new—or different—with great interest and curiosity.
But what happens when a child sees someone moving in a wheelchair, or walking with a white cane or making unfamiliar noises? Natural curiosity would lead them to ask questions: “Why is that person in a chair with wheels?” “What is that white cane for?” “Why does that person sound like that?” These are natural questions that reflect a healthy interest in the world.
How we respond to those questions is the critical moment. When we respond by pulling the child back and saying, “It’s not nice to ask that question,” or, “Don’t point,” or whatever we do to divert the child’s focus on the other person—in that moment, we spawn discomfort, and potentially, fear.
And this becomes the next generation of stigma. This is how we create a sense of “other.” This is how those with disabilities become “them,” and not “us.”
In her essay, Stigma, An Enigma Demystified, Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown writes about the origins of stigma. She suggests that all of us carry with us a fear of being seen as different or separate from the rest of society—an “other.” Any one of us, she posits, could become stigmatized at any time, given how rapidly our culture shifts over time. For example, as we age, our status changes, and, in some cultures, age gives us increased status. In others, ageing decreases our status. And when we lose status, we lose power. Losing power means losing advantages and ultimately, losing control about the choices we get to make about our lives.
In addition, those who find themselves in a category or population that is stigmatized in one way or another become defined by our “otherness,” or what could be considered our disadvantage by those who are yet not stigmatized. We become part of what I referred to in an earlier post as a “single story,” defined by that “otherness” such as our heritage or our disability or our politics or our age or economic status, just to name a few ways of exclusion and segregation. If we have gifts or talents that are outstanding, they are highlighted in spite of our “otherness.”
I believe that stigmatization happens on both a conscious and an unconscious level. It is part of a defensive posture that many use to protect themselves from the exclusion that stigma brings. It is part of the message that is passed along to us as children when we are told to be polite and not point out differences. It is passed along in messages from the media and from opinions handed to us by those in authority.
But what if we were to respond to difference with respectful interest instead of fear? What if we allowed the questions: “What is your life like in that wheelchair?” “How do you know it’s safe to cross the street if you cannot see?” What might be the result?
I would suggest that the result would be greater empathy and ultimately, greater understanding of what it is like to be in another’s shoes. We might come to discover that the “other” is, in fact, very much like us. We might be inspired by them—and ultimately, by each other. It would require that those of us in both the stigmatized and non-stigmatized groups be willing to have the conversation.
We all want to be part of the non-stigmatized majority. If we were to work together, we could indeed all be part of the that majority if we would reshape our thinking and our language. “Them,” then, becomes “us.”
This March, as part of Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, I ask: what would it take for us to recognize our own unconscious stigmatization of others—no matter what the difference might be? And ultimately, what would it take for us to turn to the world of differences with respectful interest instead of fear and discomfort?
I welcome your thoughts and responses.