From Lisa: Addressing Stigma in Schools

  • August 31, 2017

For the past few weeks DRT has been analyzing mountains of data and heaps of community input recently received as part of our agency goal-setting process. Throughout the hundreds of survey responses, a prominent issue rose to the surface -  the issue of stigma experienced by people with disabilities. Certainly not a new issue, the input we received shows that stigma remains on the minds of the Tennesseans we serve. And, with kids across our state returning to school this fall, now seems the perfect time to consider how and what we are teaching our youth about disabilities. 

I remember when my son, who has bipolar disorder, held the coveted quarterback position for his freshman football team. Shortly into the season he became very depressed and was hospitalized. Not only did he lose his position as quarterback on the team, but he lost the understanding and respect of many of his teammates. When I think about it now, several years later, I realize what a great teaching opportunity this could have been. Yet even as an advocate in this field, I wasn't sure exactly what to say and do at the time.

Through talking about disability and, most importantly, modeling inclusive behavior with others who have disabilities, we have the power to shape how young Tennesseans view and engage with their peers and community members with disabilities.

Without education, young children have no idea what disability means. They have neither negative nor positive connotations regarding the experience of having a disability. They are often curious, occasionally fearful, but generally open to friendships and experiences with peers who have disabilities—which is where we can all step in. Parents of both children with and without disabilities, teachers, school administrators, community members, advocates, and others have unlimited opportunities to say and do things to reduce stigma. It is paramount that we put aside our creeping doubt of saying or doing the wrong thing and just take the first step! Through talking about disability and, most importantly, modeling inclusive behavior with others who have disabilities, we have the power to shape how young Tennesseans view and engage with their peers and community members with disabilities.  

So, the next time you see children unsure how to interact with a student with a disability, get involved and make introductions. Encourage the little ones to learn about their peers with disabilities. Remind them that we are all different in many ways, but also the same in just as many ways. And finally, teach children that people with disabilities are just that—people.

Addressing stigma is a process. Nothing will change overnight. But the fact that people are thinking about it and talking about it is a great sign. The process has started. Please join the movement. And if you aren't sure how, just give us a call