Depersonalizing Discrimination

One of the biggest disability stressors people talk to me about in my advocacy work is the difficulty they have handling incidents of discrimination. Discrimination ranges from subtle behavior and language to outright exclusion. Somewhere in the middle there is a wide variety of things that happen that you have to decide whether to tolerate, act upon or handle with a sense of humor or other skill.

I’ve had many people come to me who begin to feel a sense of erosion of their self worth due to repeated incidents of discrimination. They ask “Why is this happening to me?” instead of reframing it to a wider social picture: “Why are people with disabilities being treated this way?”

One of the skills that I emphasize to people with disabiliites is learning how to depersonalize discrimination. Basically it means that you take a step back and remember that the party who is discriminating against you because of your disability would act that way toward the next person who comes along with a disability as well. This helps put the incident into perspective and can keep it from being as damaging to your self esteem.

There is a form of discrimination that happens where it is very difficult not to personalize discrimination. Some people who discriminate against disabled people, particularly in groups, consciously or unconsciously will personally attack characteristics of the disabled person. They rationalize their refusal to accommodate the disabled person or include the disabled person by picking on personal traits of the person unrelated to the disability. In my advocacy work I use the word bullying to describe this behavior.

This kind of exclusion is very hard not to personalize because it is aimed at your perceived faults and the attackers are careful not to say anything about your disability. In fact they are extremely politically correct. However, it is very important to learn to spot it. When a group of people does this to you and it results in social exclusion, it’s important to take a step back and assess if it’s discriminatory behavior.

Why does this happen? Sadly it’s easier for a group to find fault with someone whose presence requires adjustments than to make those adjustments. It’s easier to just make them go away. It can be very difficult for a person with a disability to undergo an experience like this. The herd mentality of groups, bullying behaviors and negative attitudes toward disability combine to create a toxic atomosphere.

For example, I had someone come to me who was attending a women’s social group for several years. The meeting place had to be moved because of her wheelchair and she noticed that the label “selfish” and the word “entitlement” started to be tossed around by some of the group members. Over time the labels continued to fly, such as “arrogant” and “difficult”. By the time she talked to me, she was in tears. She told me she never had an experience like this in a group before she became disabled. This alerted me to the fact that this might not be a case where the woman really did have social skill issues or personality problems but was being discriminated against. Members of the group had effectively closed her out by labeling her – but never using the disability directly to do it.

I told her that her best option was to depersonalize the discrimination and reach out for objective reality checks, which she already started to do by talking to me. It’s important to consult with members of the disability community to get feedback and do a reality check with people you trust and who know you well to see if your assessment of the situation is correct. You then need to consider your options in this situation. A lawsuit may be appropriate , e.g., if it’s happening at work and your career is at stake. You also need to assess if it’s worth putting yourself through any more of this behavior as well as what you can realistically do about it. Balancing these two considerations is crucial.

Since this group was directly related to her professional career, the woman chose to stand her ground, depersonalize the behavior and hang in there. Once she stopped personalizing the behavior, she reported that it was easier to cope with the group dynamics and shake off much of the negative behavior. By doing this, she not only stayed in the group but noticed that the dynamics improved based on how she reacted to the behavior.

This is not always the outcome in these situations, but knowing how to depersonalize discriminatory behaviors is a good skill for all of us to have. It can be a powerful tool against many forms of subtle (and not so subtle) discrimination.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan


Filed under essay

2 responses to “Depersonalizing Discrimination

  1. Ruth – you talk about recognizing discrimination, but could you expand a litte on how to “depersonalize the behaviour”? This is jargon I’m not familiar with.

  2. In cognitive therapy, psychologists talk about “personalizing” – which means taking responsibility and blame for anything unpleasant that happens (e.g. someone else’s bad mood). This can lead to lowered self esteem because the person blames himself/herself unnecessarily for bad things. So we can talk about “not personalizing” events which is the healthier behavior. By “depersonalizing” discrimination, I’m speaking about going a step further. It’s important not to personalize the discrimination – this includes not blaming oneself for someone else’s discriminatory behavior and not taking responsibility for it. But it’s also an active stance toward discrimination-(emphasis on the word active)- a conscious decision to get reality checks and weigh the options of how to deal with the situation.

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