Many people shy away from the topic of disability because it makes them uncomfortable. For people living with a disability, this is an added barrier to their potential for enjoy fulfilling lives. They may have learned to thrive and live alongside their disability, but then come up against constant stigma and stereotypes that hold them back. The bottom line, however, is that people with disabilities want the same respect, rights, and opportunities as everyone else.

The stigma surrounding disability often comes from a lack of understanding and familiarity with the subject. It is the fear of the unknown. People with a disability are largely underrepresented in media and society, and that lack of visibility plays a major role in reinforcing stigmas.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, however, around 1 in 6 (18%) people living in Australia has a disability. That is about 4.4 million people, which is a sizeable chunk of the population. In this article, we’d like to shine a light on disability and make it a conversation starter instead of an avoided subject.

In this article, you will learn:

What is a disability?
What types of disabilities are there?
What is a stigma?
What types of stigmas do people with disabilities face?
5 ways to interact with people with disabilities.

What is a disability?

A disability, by definition, is ‘any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions)’. So, basically, some sort of impairment that presents a challenge to daily living and social interaction.

What types of disabilities are there?

There are many types of disabilities and many ways of grouping them. The National Disability Service (NDS) groups them as follows:

Intellectual disabilities

These include cognitive disabilities, learning disabilities and Autism:

  • Cognitive disabilities involve impaired mental function manifested before 18 years old. Examples are Down Syndrome, Fragile X syndrome and Fetal Alcohol syndrome.
  • Learning disorders are thought to be a central nervous system dysfunction and include conditions like ADD (attention deficit disorder), ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), and dyslexia.
  • Autism is a developmental disorder that affects cognition, communication and behaviour and includes Asperger’s syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Delay.

Physical disabilities

These are any disabilities that affect the physical function of the body and include muscular dystrophy, motor neurone disease, paraplegia, quadriplegia, neuromuscular disorders, spina bifida, arthritis, back disorders, cerebral palsy, absence or deformities of limbs, ataxia, bone formation or degeneration, and scoliosis.

Acquired brain injury

These are disabilities caused by brain damage occurring after birth.

Neurological disabilities

These are nervous system impairments, such as epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s.

Deafblind (dual sensory) or visual, hearing or speech impairments

Psychiatric disabilities

These include schizophrenia, personality disorders, affective disorders, anxiety disorders, addictive behaviours, stress, psychosis, depression, and adjustment disorders.

Developmental delay

These are conditions in children aged 0-5 that have not yet been specifically diagnosed.

What is a stigma?

Stigma is a word used to describe putting a negative mark on someone in your mind. If someone sees a person with a disability in a negative light because of their disability, that is stigma. If someone then treats a person with a disability in a negative way, that is discrimination. Stigma happens in the mind and is an attitude that can very easily lead to discrimination.

In many cultures, disability is seen as a curse, a punishment, and contagious. This is why education is so important in attempting to remove the stigma around it.

What types of stigmas do people with disabilities face?

Social exclusion – People with a disability are sometimes left out of social occasions or avoided at social occasions because other people don’t know how to speak to them.

Stereotyping – People with disabilities are often lumped in one category and considered to be less intellectually capable, even if their disability isn’t intellectual.

Discrimination – Laws are in place to avoid this, but there may still be many situations where people with disabilities are overlooked for a job role or opportunity.

Condescension – When people without disabilities speak to someone with a disability, they sometimes speak down to them or coddle them.

Blaming – When people have disabilities that aren’t clearly visible, they may be accused of overplaying their disability to their advantage.

Internalisation – This is when outside stigma turns internal and the person with a disability feels shame about themselves and their disability.

Violence – People with disabilities are more likely to be victims of sexual or physical assault as they are often less able to protect themselves.

5 ways to interact with people with disabilities

The way to really remove the stigma around disability is to bring it into the light, educate people on what disability is and how to interact with people living with disabilities. This will go a long way to lessen the awkwardness and discomfort many people without disabilities feel around the subject.

    1. Person first, disability second – This is a mindset as well as a way of speaking. When speaking, avoid using ‘disabled person’ and instead use ‘person with a disability’. What this does is put the individual first in the equation. They are not their disability; it is just one of many aspects of their identity.
    2. Ask before lending a helping hand – People with disabilities, like everyone else, want to have independence and dignity. If you think someone might need help with something, rather than jumping in and coming to their ‘rescue’, ask them if they would like or need help first. Very often, they are perfectly capable on their own.
    3. Don’t speak down to a person with a disability – Very often, people speak down to people with disabilities, patronise them, use a baby voice, or overcompensate in some way. This is probably just due to a lack of understanding but can be very offensive and disrespectful. Speak to people with a disability like you would speak to anyone else and if they have a communication disability, ask them how they prefer to communicate. If they have a translator or carer, don’t speak to the carer/translator, speak to them directly.
    4. Keep your mitts off their mobility device – People with a physical disability often spend most of their time using their mobility device, whether it is a wheelchair, crutches, a cane, or a scooter. This almost becomes an extension of their person, so don’t lean on their wheelchair or use their crutch to push something. This can often feel confronting and is akin to you leaning directly on them.
    5. Don’t throw a pity party they didn’t ask for – Very often, people without disabilities make the mistake of feeling sorry for or pitying people with disabilities. They are seen as, for example, victims confined to their wheelchairs. This is not the case. Many people with disabilities have fully accepted their disability as a part of their identity and are living their best life possible. They don’t see themselves or want to be seen as victims.

Final thought

As Amy Oulton in her Ted Talk Changing the Way We Talk About Disability notes, when you have a disability, you feel ‘hyper visible but completely invisible as a person’. This is because what other people see first is the disability and then the person. We need to work to change that so that we see the disability as just one part of the unique, talented, contributing, and independent whole of the person.

Stereotypes are hard to break, but with open-mindedness and an open heart, we can create more opportunities and possibilities for people with disabilities to grow and live full lives by creating an enabling environment for all.

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