Battling the internal struggles of having a disability can be challenging enough on it’s own, but part of the burden of having a disability also stems from the perceptions of others. Overcoming the stigma of having a disability presents its own set of issues ranging from discrimination, to stereotypes and prejudice.
The stigma of being disabled can also extend to family members as well. The disabled person may be excluded or treated differently by society, and it’s not uncommon for that to extend to brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, children and entire families. The self-esteem of everyone can suffer.
Part of the root of the stigma associated with disabilities stems from the not too recent past, when illnesses and medical conditions were much less understood than they are today. Without effective treatments at hand, the medical profession and society in general had a tendency to pull back and seek protection from the great unknown. Unfortunately, the ignorance that produced that stigma still exists today.
While many disabilities are obvious, such as being confined to a wheelchair, the loss of a limb or having a disease with outwardly obvious symptoms, the stigma that produces anxiety in a disabled person with a hidden disability, such as epilepsy or autism, can be even more onerous. The fear of being “found out” and the possibility of changing social interactions or more formal actions such as being passed over for a promotion or raise at work, or any number of other interactions can present a set of real obstacles for those who are disabled.
The type of disability, obvious or hidden, often times will determine how a disabled person confronts the stigma attached to it. In cases where a disability is obvious, the disabled person has little choice but to confront situations and manage their social contacts with others. To lessen the impacts of the stigma, a person will create a safety net of friends and associates who accept the person and their disability. Another way is to simply avoid situations where a socially awkward situation might occur. Still others will recognize when an awkward situation arises and use it as an opportunity to educate someone on how to best interact with a disabled person. Each response is acceptable, and each comes with a set of drawbacks that must be considered by the disabled person.
Hidden disabilities are more easily concealed, but that concealment is a less than ideal situation for the disabled person. On the surface, everything appears normal, but in reality, the disabled person is actually stigmatizing themselves, making for a complicated and less than ideal life.
Professionals suggest that overcoming the stigma of being disabled begins with a reality check. If you are disabled and you let your disability overwhelmingly define you as a person, then you are in for a rough time. Your reality check should include looking at yourself as an entire person, beyond whatever limiting factors your disability creates for you. Are you a good parent? Do others still love you? Are you able to make a living, still do basic household chores and self grooming tasks? Do you have hobbies or sports you can still find joy in doing? They key to your happiness and overcoming your stigma is to not be obsessed with your disability, to see yourself as a complete person, and to help others see you the same way, too.
In dealing with others who will know nowhere near as much about your disability as you, break the ice and ease their curiosity. In many cases, people will want to know the details of how you came to be disabled and what it’s like to be affected by your condition. Breaking down this barrier, remaining upbeat and open, and not dwelling on it for too long will remove much of the awkwardness of a new interaction, clearing the way for you to move on to other parts of your new relationship.