A subtle form of discrimination may be hurting students with disabilities at your institution, according to presenters at the last Association for Higher Education And Disabilities conference.
“You need to be aware of the fact that attitudes toward people with disabilities are still very negative,” said Danielle Ryan, a master’s degree candidate in psychological counseling at Teachers College in Columbia University. She and her colleagues at the same institution presented the results of research they conducted concerning “microaggressions” — subtle verbal or nonverbal “put-downs.”
“We wanted to see if microaggressions existed with people with disabilities,” said Corinne Galgay, a career counselor. Another panelist, Richard Keller, the director of services for students with disabilities, was the lead investigator of the study.
Keller, who is blind, gave an example of a microaggression: “I’ve had people say, ‘You have a Ph.D.?’” he said. (See other examples in the box.)
These incidents spring from a unique form of discrimination against people with disabilities called “ableism,” according to the presenters. That means nondisabled people view those with disabilities as defective compared to the ideal human stereotype. When outright discrimination became illegal, it was not socially acceptable to overtly indicate prejudice. “But the biases haven’t gone away. They just don’t show themselves the same way,” Keller said.
Sometimes perpetrators are not conscious of what they’ve done. Other times they are aware of their intent, such as when an employer says to a job candidate with disabilities: “How do you think you’ll fit in here?”
The presenters’ study involved 12 individuals with visible and invisible disabilities divided into two focus groups. Most were 40 to 50 years old and were diverse in race/ethnicity and gender.
Study participants eager to discuss offensive incidences
Focus-group participants related many incidents where nondisabled individuals denied their identity and privacy, assumed that they were helpless, or wanted to gain something from their interactions with them. “The most predominate type of microaggression was helplessness,” Keller said. “People think you need help with everything! It’s a burden when you don’t really want help,” he added.
Those with disabilities have to decide how to react to microaggressions. After the incidents, they replay them in their heads, wondering if they should have reacted as they did, or wishing they had handled the situations differently, Keller said.
“Thousands of times, I’m uncomfortable,” Keller said. “It’s distasteful and belittling, but people say, ‘Why are you making a big deal over it?’” The incidents may leave students with disabilities questioning whether they are being too sensitive, or whether their own reactions were appropriate. “Trying to figure out if they happened is the hardest part of microaggressions,” Keller said.
You can help combat microaggressions
These stab-in-the-back types of incidents cause serious psychological harm, Keller said. Microaggressions erode self-esteem and lead those with disabilities to question their own sensitivity as well as their abilities.
“You need to label these [incidents] as microaggressions to make them more visible,” Ryan said. “The first step [to help students] is to explain that microaggressions really exist.”
The presenters’ research did not include ways to combat microaggressions, nor did they offer any suggestions, but advocating to include “disabilities” in campus diversity initiatives might help. DS providers can help educate the campus community about what it’s like to have a disability. For example, is a person necessarily a good musician because he is blind? Should you address a person who uses a wheelchair instead of assuming someone should speak for him? Is it OK to ask a student with disabilities what is wrong with him?
Explaining why some actions and statements directed toward individuals with disabilities are negative could help stem microaggressions from other students, faculty and staff members.
Another strategy is to work with campus counseling services to host a group discussion on microaggressions for students with disabilities. This could allow the students to vent, plus confirm that microaggressions are real. “The validation that they [study participants] got from not being alone in the experience seemed helpful,” Keller said.
Having the group brainstorm what to say when confronted by nondisabled individuals could help students deal more positively with the situations. Having a variety of responses to choose from might help reduce the incidence of questioning of their own reactions.
Of course, “there is no one right way to respond to or process a microaggression,” Galgay said. “The same microaggression can be experienced differently depending on the day, circumstances, perpetrator, etc. But taking control of their own emotional responses and psychological processes may help these students better navigate the minefield that is microaggressions,” she added.
Finally, those working with students with disabilities must be prepared to handle the topic of helplessness. Study participants reacted the most passionately to that issue. Students with disabilities need to understand that everyone needs help sometimes, Keller said. “You don’t want those with disabilities to never ask for help,” he added.
Contact Richard Keller at firstname.lastname@example.org, Corinne Galgay at email@example.com, and Danielle Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Keller and Galgay co-authored Chapter 11 in Microaggressions and Marginality, published by John Wiley & Sons. To order, go to www.wiley.com and type the book’s name in the search engine.
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