The Thread: Stereotypes

Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

A DO-IT Scholar recently posed the following question within our Internet discussion forum. I will share with you some of the responses so that you can get the flavor of the many rich conversations the DO-IT community has online.

Just out of curiosity, what are some typical stereotypes that you hear about people with disabilities?

DO-IT Ambassador: The #1 stereotype I've come head-to-head with is people thinking I'm mentally challenged just because I am physically disabled. Sometimes they talk down to me. I hate this, but if I'm not going to see them again, or not see them daily, I quietly let it pass. This stereotype is so demeaning. When I was in middle school and high school I got very upset about this. Disabled people often have to prove themselves worthy of respect, and that's not fair. We have to work harder at everything else—why should we have to work harder at getting the respect we need and deserve? Often, this stereotype leads to alienation and isolation; then it can cause depression...

DO-IT Scholar: I have also had to face the stereotype of being mentally challenged because of my physical disability. But for me, I have also had to endure people calling me a "faker" because I can walk for short distances. I had to endure that through most of high school.

DO-IT Ambassador: Yes, I get the developmentally disabled label ALL the time, and I'm used to it. All I can do is keep going back to that coffee shop, grocery store, or wherever and people quickly realize that I'm not the stereotype. If people say more than two words to me, they get it, but if I'm never going to see them again, why bother, unless it's so blatant that I have to address it.

I also find it helpful to dress nicely in professional attire. This makes people think before they speak. If I'm running around in my jeans with holes I get stereotyped more frequently as being unemployed and living off the system. My two favorite uninformed things that people say to me are, "They let you out?" and "Where's your care giver?"

The stereotype I find most annoying is the reaction I get when I ride the bus. When I get on the bus, because I am in a wheelchair, people tend to roll their eyes and scram to the back of bus thinking I will delay the bus and run into them. To their surprise, I get on and get situated in 90 seconds or less without running into anything or anybody. There are times I have seen wheelchair users take 20 minutes to get on the bus, hitting everything, and not paying bus fare so, to a certain extent, I understand people's reactions.

There are many more examples, but the thing I've found most helpful in dealing with stereotypes is not to let it bother you and continue being persistent. The more people see you out living life the less stereotyped you get.

DO-IT Scholar: Although I have cerebral palsy, my community has been quite welcoming to me.

DO-IT Ambassador: Just out of curiosity, have you lived in your community for a while? From my personal experience, I guess I get stereotyped when I'm somewhere new. For example, it took 3 months in San Diego for people to be less obvious with their stereotyping and more or less a month in small town Michigan. I'm not sure if it's true, but my experience has been that in small towns it's easier to overcome stereotypes, probably because you see the same faces everyday.

DO-IT Ambassador: As a person with cerebral palsy I get stereotyped frequently. People will have the notion that I am a mentally challenged or a drug addict! I get stereotyped more often if I wear a t-shirt and jeans than if I wear a dress shirt and slacks. Sometimes it can be really subtle and sometimes it is down right obvious. Once, in California, I was walking along to catch a bus wearing a t-shirt, shorts and sandals. I noticed a father and a son coming towards me on the sidewalk. The son was walking along the curb and the father was walking closer to the shops. The father saw me, and he quickly switched positions with his son. I just passed him and went on with my errands without addressing the issue.

DO-IT Scholar (who originally posed question): Has anyone ever experienced people saying anything like "Because you're blind, you spill things and cut yourself more" or "Blind people feel everything"?

DO-IT Ambassador: I think I face a lot of stereotypes as a visually impaired person. First of all, people seem to think that I can't hear just because I am visually impaired. They will start touching me while I am walking around. I guess they think I will not be able to hear them when they give me instructions. Others assume that I can't cross roads correctly just because I can't see. They will tell me when the light has changed and that it is my turn to go. Sometimes, they don't even know if I am planning to cross the road. There are a considerable number of people who automatically assume that I am going to accept their assistance. The real truth of the matter is that I don't generally put my trust in the hands of strangers. If I need any kind of assistance at all, I would rather it come from someone such as the state commission for the blind, a college instructor or counselor, an employee at a business, such as a restaurant or hotel, the transit office, or a bus or cab driver.

DO-IT Scholar: I've faced stereotyping by kids and even teachers. They think just because I'm physically challenged I cannot do a lot on my own. They also think that because I sometimes struggle with my schoolwork I'm mentally challenged, despite the fact I have nearly a 3.0 GPA.

DO-IT Ambassador: The stereotype I find most interesting is when you have no physical disabilities and seem perfectly "normal" and try to tell people that you have learning disabilities. Most people laugh at you and tell you to quit whining or make some sarcastic remark. I also find it interesting that if people ever see depression or a bipolar mood swing they will tell you to get over it, that you are faking it for attention, or that you are crazy and should get help. People's lack of understanding and education about disabilities never ceases to amaze me.

DO-IT Ambassador: I've had many of the same experiences; well said.

DO-IT Ambassador: For me, people tend to assume that my wife is my caregiver, my sister, or just a friend. They treat me differently when they find out she's my wife! Last summer, we went to the zoo and my wife dropped me off with our 9-year old nephew to get tickets while she parked. Remember, I'm in a wheelchair and have unclear speech. The cashier had the nerve to tell us we needed an adult with us...I'm 32! He even called security to find out what to do. He finally let us in, but my wife chewed him out when she got there and found out what happened. Even if you might not ever see the person again, say something if appropriate. You may prevent someone else from being treated the same way.

DO-IT Mentor: When I was 15 (and still walking) I would hang out with my sister (who uses a wheelchair) and her baby. Even though my sister was older than me, had a wedding band (which is not necessarily, but could be a clue), and was the person actually carrying the baby, people would always ask ME about MY baby. I always thought "Goodness gracious! I'm only 15 and I can't even keep a goldfish alive! Why do people think that I could do any better with a baby?" I suppose there are a lot of young mothers, but I don't know why people assumed that just because I walked and my sister didn't that I was the mom—not her!

DO-IT Scholar (who originally asked question): Thanks for that one. I forgot about people thinking you can't take care of babies. Blind people get that one sometimes too. Doesn't make any sense.

DO-IT Ambassador: It is just funny (in a sad way) how far off people can be even if the truth is staring them in the face!