Stigma Kills: A Concrete Example

Often when bloggers or activists push back against ableist language and stereotypes in the media, especially pop culture, someone will respond with an argument that there are more important disability issues to address and that the topic at hand is mostly irrelevant to disability rights as a whole. This has happened with each of the posts in the Ableist Word Profile series, it’s happened with discussion about ableist tropes in pop culture, it’s happened when critiquing the vast overrepresentation of criminal behavior in news coverage of people with mental illness.

I believe these things matter very much. Perhaps not individually – if I slip and use the word “lame” pejoratively, it does not automatically cause a person with a disability to die instantly. But each individual instance adds up to become a trend, to become a larger understanding and expectation of how things are. And if those understandings and expectations aren’t accurate, it can have dramatically horrific results.

This is because a lot of our ongoing decisionmaking is done automatically, unconsciously. This is because we are constantly presented with such a vast amount of information that if we stopped to consciously evaluate everything, we’d never be able to do anything at all. When I see an object with keys labeled with letters and laid out in the QWERTY design, I recognize it as a keyboard an assume I use it to manually input written data into a computer or typewriter or phone or other device. This saves me the trouble of figuring out each and every time what this object is, what it is for, how I am supposed to interact with it, and what end result I can expect. I do this instantly, even though it is immensely complicated – it has been extraordinarily difficult to program a computer to identify, say, a keyboard from a photo or video, regardless of lighting, angle, and lots of other variables that the brain can process almost instantly.

There are similar examples for evaluating other sensory input. When I touch something, I know instantly and without consciously considering it whether the object is solid or liquid, dry or wet. I have no idea how I make that evaluation and instructing someone else on making that judgment would be immensely difficult for me – but when my foot touches a wet patch of carpet en route to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I pull my foot back lightning fast to avoid what is surely cat puke. If I feel myself losing balance, I put out a hand to catch myself without consciously deciding to, because my classification of my sensations as “losing balance” was done entirely unconsciously.

How does stigma fit into this? Well, a stereotype is an unconscious cognitive shortcut – instead of examining an individual person or situation, we apply a stereotype to make assumptions. While a stereotype is usually seen as a negative thing, they serve an important purpose by allowing us to make educated guesses. For example, when I go into a fast food restaurant, I know to go to the counter and give my order to someone behind the counter, usually wearing a uniform. While this has held true at the places I’ve visited in the past, if I go to an new fast food restaurant that I haven’t visited before, I will assume that I use the same procedure. That’s a useful assumption that saves me the time and energy of approaching each situation as brand new and unrelated.

There are times when stereotypes can be harmful and damaging, as we well know. The stigma against PWDs is an assumption applied to all PWDs simply because they are PWDs, assuming they have a set of presumed characteristics, motivations, and beliefs. It is a stereotype composed of all the understandings and expectations of PWDs conveyed by all the little things – the word choices of the people you talk to, that one character in that on tv show, that story you saw on the news last night. And although the specifics fade away, most people are left with vague, unconscious associations. Again, some of these associations are essentially value-neutral, as how I generally associate red with “stop” and green with “go” from traffic lights and signs. But people can also have unconscious associations around more complex and problematic issues, like race, gender, and disability status.

Social psychologists from Harvard developed a computer-based test to measure the existence of implicit associations and stereotypes – the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT asks users to rapidly categorize words to the left or right of the screen. From the IAT FAQ:

The IAT asks you to pair two concepts (e.g., young and good, or elderly and good). The more closely associated the two concepts are, the easier it is to respond to them as a single unit. So, if young and good are strongly associated, it should be easier to respond faster when you are asked to give the same response (i.e. the ‘E’ or ‘I’ key [to indicate left or right]) to these two. If elderly and good are not so strongly associated, it should be harder to respond fast when they are paired. This gives a measure of how strongly associated the two types of concepts are. The more associated, the more rapidly you should be able to respond. The IAT is one method for measuring implicit or automatic attitudes and is featured on this website. There are other methods, using different procedures, that have been investigated in laboratory studies.

I’ve taken a number of IATs before (because I’m dorky about cognitive science and this kind of stuff) and believe that they have correctly identified in me some negative unconscious associations. For example, I unconsciously associated women with home and family and men with business. Consciously, I strongly disagree with that association! So when I do consciously consider my assumptions about those associations, I override and reject my unconscious associations.

When researching this post, I took the IAT that measures unconscious associations around disability. (I can’t link directly to that test, but it can be found in the IAT demonstrations available here.) Taking the test, I found that I have a slight automatic preference for abled people over PWDs. This doesn’t mean that when I act, speak, or even think about these issues I exhibit that preference. It doesn’t mean that I “really” prefer TABs to PWDs. It means that I have been sufficiently inundated by messages that associate TABs with “good” and PWDs with “bad” that I have a slight unconscious tendency to apply that association, a tendency almost instantaneously overruled by my conscious thought. So it is an association that exists only for the tiniest of moments until it is extinguished by cognition.

How can those tiny moments, almost too small to measure, even matter? Well, as Chally recently posted about, a Los Angeles police officer shot and killed an unarmed man with an unspecific cognitive disability autism 1. The officer fired as the man reached towards his waistband after failing to respond to verbal commands from the police. From the LA Times article linked in the post:

[LAPD Officers] Corrales and Diego believed “he [the PWD] was arming himself” and fired, Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger said at an afternoon news conference.

The officers made decisions in a fraction of a second,” he added.

In a fraction of a second.

Just long enough for the unconscious association to spark but not long enough for conscious thought to override it.

Just long enough for stigma to kill.

  1. ETA since his family disclosed that he had autism in numerous public interviews.

9 Comments

  1. Wow this post is good. And painful.

  2. Wonderful post. I’ve been in discussion elsewhere on ableist language and this will be a helpful link in further conversations, so thank you!!

  3. ne disligig^os plu

    “This is because a lot of our ongoing decisionmaking is done automatically, unconsciously. This is because we are constantly presented with such a vast amount of information that if we stopped to consciously evaluate everything, we’d never be able to do anything at all. When I see an object with keys labeled with letters and laid out in the QWERTY design, I recognize it as a keyboard an assume I use it to manually input written data into a computer or typewriter or phone or other device. This saves me the trouble of figuring out each and every time what this object is, what it is for, how I am supposed to interact with it, and what end result I can expect.”
    Fascinating description. Can I ask you not to use the word “our” here next time? Not everyone shares these experiences.

  4. thanks, ne disligigos plu – that’s a good point. while i was writing the post, i realized that the unconscious nature of this processing is likely part of why TABs are so resistant to recognizing or believing variations or disorders in these processes. i’d thought i’d corrected it to recognize that, but clearly missed a few pronouns!

  5. If you want more information regarding the importance of eradicating prejudicial language you should look up the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

  6. Great post, thank you, and bringing in data that I’m far too close to to talk about comprehensibly.

    I’m confused at the previous poster’s questioning of your use of “our”. If I’m missing something because of unconscious ablist bias, I do apologize. I’m just… having trouble thinking of who *doesn’t* process things unconsciously and automatically, since there’s some evidence that people do this even when comatose. Certainly those of us with disabilities can have somewhat *different* unconscious processing than TABs and than one another (and certainly we can be just as resistant to accepting this as TABs), but I’m drawing a blank on living humans who don’t fit your generalization.

    (btw, if you do choose to reference the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, please look up the “weak” version. Lera Boroditsky’s experimental work might be a good place to start, as might the work done at the Max PLank institute at Nijmegen. The “strong” version is so much nonsense that it’s a favourite straw-man in some areas, and has been considered an excuse to discount valid arguments far too often.)

  7. ne disligig^os plu

    That particular experience in the quote about the keyboard is one I don’t share, which is why I prefer familiar objects and (more so) familiar people. I’m not “never able to do anything at all,” as the quote from the post put it. There are certainly things I process unconsciously, like written English. I’d rather not go into too much detail here.

  8. That particular experience in the quote about the keyboard is one I don’t share, which is why I prefer familiar objects and (more so) familiar people.

    Thank you for this. I think we were both just interpreting the post differently, thus my confusion.