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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). … see more

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