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Chapter 4

Chapter 4. Cultural and Impairment-Specific Stereotypes

When language and media portrayals consistently associate certain characteristics with disability (e.g. helplessness, dependence, asexuality) while failing to link the group with other roles and capabilities (parenthood, independence, competence), cultural stereotypes become engrained in memory, shaping what people notice and fail to notice about others. Novels, movies, and cartoons are full of examples that perpetuate stereotypes by portraying disabled people as tragic victims, angry villains, and incompetent dupes (Haller 2010). Even contemporary, award-winning films (e.g. Million Dollar Baby; Me Before You) reinforce stereotypes whenever the disabled character chooses to die so as not to be a burden to loved ones (Dolmage and DeGenaro 2005). As noted in Chapter 3, the removal of life-sustaining food and breathing tubes can be justified as mercy killing as long as disabled people are characterized as suffering burdens.

Chapter 4 summarizes key lessons on the content, functions, and use of disability stereotypes as the more proximal, cognitive components of disability prejudice. In general, a stereotype is defined as a set of attributes used to characterize a group and its members (Ashmore and Del Boca 1981). Although faulty and incomplete, stereotypes are not uniformly negative. They serve important psychological functions that allow perceivers to go beyond what is directly observable, and to predict how people are likely to behave. For example, if teachers expect to have a student with a disability in their classroom, they may anticipate needing to accommodate the student’s perceived “special needs” or to help them overcome presumed dependence.

To date, most studies regarding disability stereotypes have focused on specific impairments such as physical, sensory, learning, or psychiatric conditions; yet, research examining the stereotypes of disabled people as a whole have been less common as psychology has been slow to conceptualize disabled people as a minority group (Nario-Redmond 2010). In reality, disabled people share many experiences with discrimination and restricted social status that are often reflected in stereotypic beliefs about the group. This chapter also summarizes research on the cultural stereotypes of disabled people which may not be personally endorsed, but can nevertheless impact judgments, interpretations, and decisions that influence policies. My own research team found strong consensus for cross-impairment cultural stereotypes generated spontaneously by both disabled and nondisabled people. These global or cross-impairment stereotypes characterize disabled people as dependent, incompetent, asexual, weak, passive, unattractive, and heroic (Nario-Redmond 2010). Such work directly contradicts previous assumptions that broad-based, consensually shared stereotypes about disabled people are unlikely due to the diversity of impairments that exist (Biernat and Dovidio 2000).

Disability stereotypes serve many of the same functions as do other minority stereotypes. They are used to define people in ways that best distinguish one group from another (Schaller and Conway III 2001). For example, if the cultural stereotype of disabled people includes traits diametrically opposed to sexuality and nurturance, this can influence opinions about their suitability as partners and parents. Moreover, these representations can impact plans for public facilities that might include accessible bathrooms without the provision of accessible changing tables (Anderson and Kitchin 2000). Stereotype contents influence stereotype use, and when shared across many perceivers, these consequences can be far-reaching. Furthermore, because stereotypes are often activated automatically, they influence people unconsciously. Without any awareness that one’s perceptions are being influenced by disability stereotypes, some have questioned whether people can be held accountable for their biased judgments and decision making (Fiske 1989).

Other researchers have speculated that the stereotypes considered most diagnostic of group membership may help to maintain clear intergroup boundaries (Linton 1998; Tajfel and Turner 1979). By defining disabled people as incompetent and dependent, nondisabled people can define themselves as knowledgeable and self-reliant. Stereotypes also function to impose restrictive roles that rationalize discriminatory treatment: when an entire group is defined as incapable and incompetent, it is easier to justify special protections and joblessness. According to the Stereotype Content Model, stereotypes can be predicted as a function of structural variables related to a group’s current status in society and competitive (or cooperative) orientation (Fiske et al. 2002). Specifically, people with disabilities (e.g. blind, intellectually and physically disabled) are thought to be stereotyped as “incompetent” because of their low status, but “warm” because of their noncompetitive social position. The implications of the work for prejudicial attitudes and behaviors is elaborated in Chapter 5.

Much more work is needed to examine how ableist stereotypes affect medical decision making and policies governing the allocation of resources. For example, pregnant women are often advised to abort if they test positive for Down syndrome, dwarfism, webbed fingers, and even conditions that may develop later in life like Alzheimer’s (Allott and Neumayr 2013; Hubbard 2006). It is the deselection of only certain types of embryos that is problematic if based on assumptions that life with disability is a fate worse than not living at all.

Although stereotypes are resistant to change, they can be altered, especially when individuals are sufficiently motivated to update their current understandings. Cultural stereotypes also change over time in response to changing social circumstances (Haslam et al. 1999). Future research is needed to investigate the extent to which deeply engrained automatic biases change in response to updated representations of disabled people. Chapter 4 concludes with suggestions for studies that identify the boundary conditions of competency and other stereotypic evaluations: are people more likely to express bias toward disabled people when they appear consistent with disability stereotypes or when they violate stereotypic expectations; and how do disability stereotypes affect the judgments of those who appear less stereotypically impaired (e.g. with less visible, more fluid or temporary conditions)? If not readily categorized as disabled, some stereotypes may not be readily invoked, until disability is disclosed.

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