How Stigma Undermines Good Policies

There is sometimes significant pushback to talking about negative attitudes towards disabilities and PWDs. Those discussion are sometimes criticized for being too abstract, too removed from any practical effects on actual people. Sometimes people suggest that we focus instead on concrete policies and procedures that protect the rights of PWDs, so that tricky decisions aren’t left up to people who may act based on stigma.

As a policy wonk, though, I know that the best policy is only as good as its implementation. And if policy implementation and enforcement is in the hands of people with negative or uninformed attitudes towards PWDs, even amazing, sensitive, and nuanced policies will still lead to awful and horrific results.

For an easy example, imagine a company with a policy that required that¬† all newly hired employees be informed about their right to workplace accommodations for mental or physical disabilities.¬† The company works with disability rights groups to create a pamphlet outlining who is eligible for accommodations, what potential accommodations may be available, and the procedure for requesting accommodations and documenting a need for them. The disability rights groups make sure all the information is correct, that the pamphlet is available in alternative formats so it’s accessible, and that it emphasizes that accommodations are an employee’s right, rather than a bonus provided by the company. It is, in short, the perfect pamphlet.

Now imagine how much depends on the person who hands that pamphlet to the new employee. Take one scenario: the employee goes through a complete orientation and then is asked to wait in the lobby. When the employee asks why, the receptionist sighs “oh, it’s some stupid thing required by company policy. Just wait.” After 15 minutes, the designated human resources staffer comes out and thrusts the pamphlet at the employee, saying “Here, take this. It’s something I have to give you for policy. You have to sign here to show that I gave it to you.” When the employee asks what the pamphlet is about, the staffer replies “Oh something we have to do for disability, or whatever. Nobody is ever stupid enough to ask for any of these things, believe me.”

Compare that situation to one in which the employee sits with a single staffer to review all the new employee paperwork. At the end, the staffer says “There’s one more policy to review, and this one is especially important to our company. We place a high priority on accommodating employees with disabilities. Even if you don’t identify as someone with a disability, I want to review this with you so you can see how we ensure that employees with disabilities are equal players in our team. You might notice some employees with special equipment or who seem to have different schedules or other differences. This explains why we’ve provided these accommodations and why they’re not ‘special,’ but are important requirements for us to make sure that we accommodate and retain employees with disabilities.”

Exact same policy. Drastically different implementation that will certainly lead to drastically different effects on the individual employee in terms of willingness to identify as a PWD, request necessary accommodations, and their expectation of how the company will work with them on accommodation issues. I’d imagine that an employee in the first scenario might not ever request an accommodation for fear of being seen as a trouble-maker or someone trying to get “special rights,” or might have to go to a government agency or private attorney to actually enforce accommodation rights.

And those are the problems that can arise when attitudes and stigma complicate implementation of the actual policy as written – in both those examples, the new employee was actually given the pamphlet as part of the hiring process. What’s more troubling is when attitudes and assumptions lead to the policy not being implemented at all. There was a recent example of this with the United States Transportation Security Administration (TSA). As has been discussed extensively on this site and elsewhere, security theatre has resulted in implementation of all kinds of intrusive and extensive checks and searches of people flying commercial airlines. This is what happened last year in Philadelphia:

Ryan was taking his first flight, to Walt Disney World, for his fourth birthday. The boy is developmentally delayed, one of the effects of being born 16 weeks prematurely. His ankles are malformed and his legs have low muscle tone. In March he was just starting to walk.

Mid-morning on March 19, his parents wheeled his stroller to the TSA security point, a couple of hours before their Southwest Airlines flight was to depart. The boy’s father broke down the stroller and put it on the conveyor belt as [his mother] walked Ryan through the metal detector.

The alarm went off. The screener told them to take off the boy’s braces. The [parents] were dumbfounded. “I told them he can’t walk without them on his own,” [his father] said. “He said, ‘He’ll need to take them off.’ ” Ryan’s mother offered to walk him through the detector after they removed the braces, which are custom-made of metal and hardened plastic. No, the screener replied. The boy had to walk on his own.

The TSA policy is extremely clear about how to screen PWDs who use mobility aids such as braces:

  • Security Officers will need to see and touch your prosthetic device, cast or support brace as part of the screening process.
  • Security Officers will not ask nor require you to remove your prosthetic device, cast, or support brace.
  • During the screening process, please do not remove or offer to remove your prosthetic device.
  • The Security Officer will describe the explosive trace sampling procedure in advance to help you along with the process.
  • The explosive trace sampling process may require you to lift or raise some of your clothing in order to obtain the explosive trace sample. (Sampling areas can be accessed by you lifting your pant leg or shirtsleeve or by raising your skirt to knee-level.)

In this case, the attitude of the individual employees staffing the TSA checkpoint in the airport clearly trumped the policy. The parents of the PWD had no choice to comply or not be allowed onto their plane. When they complained to the TSA supervisor on site, they were told to “calm down and enjoy [their] vacation.” There are a lot of negative attitudes and assumptions being displayed here: PWD are probably faking and don’t really need their mobility aids; the dignity of PWDs isn’t important and can be overridden for “security concerns,” and enforcing the rights of PWDs is just making an unreasonable fuss.

That’s why it’s important to fight against stigma. Because it matters.

By 17 February, 2010.    Uncategorized   


  1. Really good post about this.

    TSA ableism is a particular pet peeve of mine, and the story about Ryan fills me with rage.

  2. Proper scripting and education for office employees dealing with this hypothetical pamphlet and the new employees it affects is just as important as the pamphlet itself. Leaving these things out renders the plan inadequate and incomplete.

  3. This is exactly how people in Centrelink and the Work for the Dole programs in Australia ask you to read the anti-discrimination and work safety information: they hand it to you along with a form which they ask you to sign without waiting for you to read the pamphlets. Which is an additional problem for me because I have OCD and get very anxious about signing things I haven’t read.

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I have seen so many examples of this in the corporate world. I think 80% of policy meetings I attended had to to do with how to get people to embrace the spirit of the policy in addition to the letter of the policy. It seems to always come down to getting “buy-in” from “stakeholders” and gatekeepers (aka winning over hearts and minds). Because the way people are, it seems, is if you give them some task or instruction that has no meaning to them (or worse, that they disagree with), it will be obvious in the outcome.

  5. Another vivid example was the U.S. Supreme Court’s unwillingness to support the Americans with Disabilities Act for the first two decades after its passage. A majority of justices believed that it was impossible for someone to be both disabled and employable. Nobody who brought an employment suit under the ADA prevailed, because if they have a job, they were by definition not covered under the ADA, since they couldn’t be employed and disabled!

    The official policy—the thousands of pages of supporting history, the laws, and their implementing regulations—were not enough for Supreme Court. Finally, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act to underline, “No, really we meant it the first time.” I hope this makes the difference: the Supreme Court has not yet taken a case under this new interpretation.