What Do You Think About Stigma

I am a member of a research group we formed at CLASS to look at and measure issues that people with disabilities experience. Recently we have decided to explore the notion of stigma and are in the process of developing a proposal we plan to submit to National Institute of Health (NIH).

As we explore the literature around stigma in preparation for our proposal, it has gotten me to think more about this phenomena in general terms. The dictionary defines stigma as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. In all my years as a disability advocate, we know that disabilities, be they congenital or acquired, can create a sense of stigma for people. Quite simply, when a person experiences a disability they can feel devalued, stared at, or avoided by other people. The phenomena of stigma and disability is real.

When digging a little deeper, we learn that there are 2 types of stigma - one is "Internalized Stigma," when the person with the devalued experience comes to feel or believe that they are different. The other is called "Enacted Stigma" when the negative attitudes are expressed by the public. Of course these 2 types of stigma are co-related, but it is the enacted stigma that has really gotten my attention. Certainly people can feel awkward or different with the difference they are experiencing, but it is not until people in the general community begin to avoid, look down on, or disregard the different person, that the cycle of stigma gets deepened.

To this end, I hope you can open your own eyes to stigma. All of us are guilty of coping a perspective, or holding on to a stereotype that can create the enacted form of stigma in everyday life experiences. This then suggests that the only way we can end stigma, is to have everyday people come to grips with their biases, and bigotry and think again. When we focus on ending enacted stigma, the internalized elements will be lessened.

Stigma is a real problem not only for people with disabilities but for any difference in our society that might be looked down upon. Still, we need to address ways and means to create a better culture; one that respects all people and treats them accordingly. Only then will we start putting an end to the ugly elements of stigma.