You can't fight stigma by making disability unspeakable

I’ve noticed that a lot of well-meaning people try to fight disability stigma by making disability unspeakable.

The logic seems to be like this:

  • They notice that when people are seen as disabled, they are respected less. 
  • They call this stigma, and think of stigma as a very bad problem. 
  • They then try to figure out how to make stigma go away so that people will be respected more.
  • They think that if no one was seen as disabled, there would be no stigma.
  • They try to get people to pretend that disability doesn’t exist.
  • They expect this to somehow improve the lives of people with disabilities. (On the grounds that if everyone ignores disability, there will be no disability stigma.)

This approach doesn’t work. Disability exists, whether or not anyone is willing to acknowledge it. When we try to fight stigma by ignoring disability, we send the message that disability is unacceptable.

When people are made to pretend that their disability does not exist, they learn that basic things about their body are unspeakable. When people are made to pretend someone else’s disability doesn’t exist, they learn that if they stopped ignoring basic things about them, it would be impossible to keep respecting them. These are not good lessons.

If you need to pretend someone isn’t disabled in order to respect them, you’re not really respecting them. You’re giving imaginary respect to an imaginary nondisabled person. People with disabilities deserve better. People with disabilities don’t need fake respect handed out as a consolation prize. People with disabilities need to be treated with real respect, as the people they really are.

If we want to fight stigma, we have to get real. Disability exists, and pretending that it doesn’t just makes the problem worse. Stigma is not caused by noticing disability; stigma is caused by ableist attitudes towards disability. It is ok to be disabled, it is not ok to be ableist, and it is upon all of us to build a culture that understands that.