Disability Stigma in Rehabilitation

Caregiver Helping Patient with Walker

Although in recent years the Americans with Disabilities Act has advocated equality for those with disabilities, the general atmosphere of American society is still riddled with biases toward the disabled. This phenomenon, known as disability stigma, even permeates the fields of medicine that are aimed at rehabilitating Americans with disabilities.

Disability is multifaceted in nature. On a personal level, disability affects the functioning of the mind or body. On a larger, structural level, people with disability must face systematic barriers to their success. Disability stigma is deeply entrenched in all of these levels, unfairly limiting their opportunities for interpersonal engagement and social achievement.

Some disability advocates have outlined some ways in which rehabilitation programs can combat this socially ingrained stigma. For one, programs can guide patients toward a reframed view of disability, shifting the mental paradigm to include a more informed and positive perspective on the issue. Stigma would be addressed institutionally as part of the disabled experience, presented as a problem that can be contested with appropriate support systems. Finally, people with disabilities should be represented within staff and authority circles to provide a voice at higher levels and to serve as positive role models.

In general, Americans lack proper access to information about disabilities and disabled life. This so-called “cultural incompetence” feeds into much of the fear and stigma surrounding people with disabilities. To expand cultural competence, American society as a whole must promote of societal and legal support systems for people living with disabilities. Those with disabilities must also be better represented in positions of authority and in everyday media. For example, the recent movie Me Before You, which features a man who becomes paralyzed after a spinal cord injury, has stirred protest in the disabled community by portraying a life with disability as a life ultimately not worth living. In reality, bleakness is not a foregone conclusion of disability; the perpetuation of this idea in mainstream society has in turn perpetuated disability stigma.

Readers are encouraged to view Me Before You to better understand the realities of life with disability, and to visualize a scenario in which a disabled person does, with systematic support and resources, experience excellent quality of life and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships. Regardless of the film’s ending, viewers should come away with the idea that social reform and active learning are key to dismantling the systematic disability stigma in American society.

Source: Gill CJ, Mukherjee S, & Garland-Thomson R. Disability stigma in rehabilitation. American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. (2016.)

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