Education: Essay

Stereotypes About People With Disabilities

by Laurie Block, Disability History Museum Staff


The life that a person with a disabling condition can look forward to today is very often, though certainly not always, radically different from what it might have been just 20 years ago. The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 extended to people with disabilities the civil-rights protections which have been extended to blacks, women, and minorities. It opens a broad front of new possibilities for people with disabilities, although -- like other major civil rights legislative initiatives -- it will take many years for the consequences to reveal themselves.

And yet when someone learns today that she will have a disability or a condition understood as disabling, when a parent-to-be learns that his child will have a physical or cognitive impairment, when television reports that a public figure has become disabled, certain specters are likely to arise -- emotionally freighted, irrational, even mutually contradictory -- of what the life of a person with a disability must be like.


Until recently, attitudes toward individuals and groups, embodied in popular culture images, would have been called stereotypes. This word suggests that the image or the attitude is unconsidered, naive, the by-product of ignorance or unfamiliarity. Stereotypes are also by definition unchanging; when a stereotype has been exposed as inadequate or false to experience, it can be transcended and left behind. The "myths of disability" which we bring to encounters with physical and mental difference are beyond stereotypes. Such deep-rooted conceptions are what sociologists now call constructions.

Popular culture images both reflect and affect attitudes. Representations of disability will often reflect contemporaneous ideas in medicine, science, religion, or social management, but those ideas may themselves be affected by the assumptions inherent in popular images and fictional narratives. A film story of a courageous doctor helping a lame child to walk might reflect current medical approaches to disability; the film story broadcasts those attitudes and helps to impress them on families, care-givers, and people with disabilities as well as the general public. But doctors were also themselves seeing such stories; they formed part of the evidence by which doctors determined their own status and the status of their patients with disabilities.

Six common constructions, or ways of understanding and picturing disability, have been widely shared by medical professionals, educators, public health workers, blue and white collar workers, novelists, publicists, philanthropists, and by many of those who themselves have disabilities. They have been chosen for examination in Beyond Affliction: The Disability History Project because they have been powerful organizers of experience for many people over long periods.

They are polar pairs, each pair expressing the same assumptions in negative and positive modes. They are rarely found in a pure iconic state. Even mutually contradictory conceptions often overlap, or appear combined in the same historical or fictional figure, creating ambiguous but powerful images that haunt the culture for decades.

Like myth and folklore (of which they are partly made) these constructions undergo transformations. They transcend geographical boundaries. They persist across generations. They go underground, and reappear, unacknowledged, in apparently rational and value-free analyses and plans. They still have power today to alter and affect the lives of individuals with disabilities as well as the lives of their family members and care providers.

People with disabilities themselves have at various times used and resisted the categories they were placed in for their own empowerment: to make, insofar as they could, their own way and their own lives.

1. People with disabilities are different from fully human people; they are partial or limited people, in an "other" and lesser category. As easily identifiable "others" they become metaphors for the experience of alienation.

2. The successful "handicapped" person is superhuman, triumphing over adversity in a way which serves as an example to others; the impairment gives disabled persons a chance to exhibit virtues they didn't know they had, and teach the rest of us patience and courage.

3. The burden of disability is unending; life with a disabled person is a life of constant sorrow, and the able-bodied stand under a continual obligation to help them. People with disabilities and their families -- the "noble sacrificers" -- are the most perfect objects of charity; their function is to inspire benevolence in others, to awaken feelings of kindness and generosity.

4. A disability is a sickness, something to be fixed, an abnormality to be corrected or cured. Tragic disabilities are those with no possibility of cure, or where attempts at cure fail.

5. People with disabilities are a menace to others, to themselves, to society. This is especially true of people with mental disability. People with disabilities are consumed by an incessant, inevitable rage and anger at their loss and at those who are not disabled. Those with mental disabilities lack the moral sense that would restrain them from hurting others or themselves.

6. People with disabilities, especially cognitive impairments, are holy innocents endowed with special grace, with the function of inspiring others to value life. The person with a disability will be compensated for his/her lack by greater abilities and strengths in other areas -- abilities that are sometimes beyond the ordinary.

These pictures of disability are not mistaken in any simple way; in fact each of them contains kernels of experiential truth about encounters between the able-bodied and those with disabilities. But when tacit theories and assumptions such as these underlie public policy and social relations, they tend to limit the full humanity of those who are affected by them.

How to cite this essay in a Chicago Manual of Style footnote: Laurie Block, “Stereotypes about People with Disabilities,” Disability History Museum, (accessed date).