“They call it ‘ADHD,’ I call it bad parenting.”
“Most ‘disabled’ people are just scamming the system.”
“I could never do what disabled people do. They’re such an inspiration.”
If these statements sound shocking and perhaps familiar, that’s the point.
Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities Council has spent years working to create favorable conditions for people with developmental disabilities. Many of the issues they deal with stem from the stigma associated with disabilities.
In response, the organization has posted thousands of signs with those kinds of statements in places like Millersville University, thanks to a group of students. Project Stigma is an effort to change people’s thinking, behavior and attitudes toward people with disabilities. Some of the statements are hurtful, but are intended to start conversations and lead to changes.
“It would be easier to be gentle, but I think we’ve tried that for a number of years and it’s really not worked,” said Graham Mulholland, executive director of Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities Council. “It was time to do something.”
What are you thinking?
Changing people’s biases is a difficult task. About 79 percent of people who responded to a survey conducted in Pennsylvania say society approaches people with disabilities with discomfort and awkwardness.
The same survey found most people said they personally don’t contribute to the stigma surrounding people with disabilities. That’s part of the problem, said Karen Gross, director of marketing at Suasion, a Dillsburg communications firm that organized the survey and developed the Project Stigma campaign.
The first step is for people to realize their own biases.
The Stigma Project asks people: “What are you thinking?” In addition to the thought bubbles, on LetsThinkAgain.org there’s a stigma quiz, videos and a pledge to end stigma.
Organizers say they hope the statements will grab people’s attention.
“Take these stigmatizing statements, put them out there on the streets and force people to think about what they’re thinking and have a dialogue,” Gross said.
The statements came directly out of the mouths of people in focus groups in Pennsylvania and were heard by people with disabilities who are involved with the disabilities council.
“It’s thought-provoking and the words are harsh, but people are thinking it in secret, so let’s bring it to the forefront,” said Theo Braddy, an adjunct professor at Millersville.
Start a conversation
Conversations are the start. Ultimately, before people can change their attitudes, they have to recognize and challenge their biases.
“I’d rather deal with overt discrimination than hidden discrimination. I can deal with something I can see,” Braddy said. “How do you fight an employer who has a bias or a stereotype about a person who’s deaf and won’t hire. They’re never going to admit that. … Until you have these conversations, people will never examine themselves.”
Another way is to get to know someone with a disability. See the person, not just the wheelchair, Braddy said.
“People with disabilities are often invisible,’’ he said. “I mean that the discrimination and the oppression that goes along with discrimination are often unseen by mainstream society. The reason you don’t see it is because you don’t have any interaction or relationship with people with disabilities. And the reason that you don’t have any interaction or relationship with people with disabilities is because you buy into the myths, the misconceptions and the assumptions that people have with people with disabilities.”
Education and interaction are key to changing that cycle.
Some of the statements sound like they’re well-meaning and portray people with disabilities as everyday heroes, but they can be isolating.
“Why should I be an inspiration to you because I’m a professor?” said Braddy, who was injured in a high school football accident. “There’s plenty of professors out there. It’s ordinary stuff.”
The subtle ways people with disabilities are patronized, antagonized and stigmatized are debilitating for people on both sides.
“Ruling out people with disabilities as your friends and your co-workers and your allies and the folks you go to church with makes your world smaller,” Mulholland said.
Spreading the message
More than 30 organizations around the state that deal with disabilities helped launch the campaign a few weeks ago by posting the thought bubbles with stigmatizing statements. They also went to social media to start the conversation through hashtags like #letsthinkagain.
Students at Millersville University, Messiah College and Temple University have joined as well.
Gross talked to students in Brady’s class at Millersville titled Discrimination and Oppression of Persons with Disabilities.
Katie Cloud heard her talk and was one of the students who wanted to bring the message to the Millersville community. Earlier this month, they posted the signs and left pamphlets throughout campus and downtown at places like Sugar on Top and the Sugar Bowl. They also talked to classes, passed out wristbands and shared pictures on social media with the hashtags #letsthinkagain, #villethinksagain and #wayt (what are you thinking?).
Cloud, a junior from Kennett Square studying psychology and sociology, connected with the message as an advocate and saw the project as a personal opportunity and one for the community.
“The first way to start change and end the stigma is to talk about it and to see and reflect on ourselves,” she said. “If you see a bubble that maybe you’ve thought at one point, you can accept that you have been part of that stigma and try to change it from there.”
Cloud was shocked and disappointed by some of the statements she placed around campus, but saw the power of the provocative. Some people were so upset, they wrote on the signs posted in the psychology department.
“We had a really strong response and backlash in the beginning because of it with people getting really upset about it,” she said. “It was kind of a good response to let us know people weren’t just seeing it and walking by and not thinking twice about it. It really kind of upset people, which shows that they know that it’s wrong and they wouldn’t accept that if they saw it in society.”
The council plans to continue spreading the word online and with the thought bubbles. In the next few years, the group would also like to share the message with more colleges and K-12 schools.