How Disability Stereotypes Are Harmful

Social IssuesCulture

  • Author Robin Akins
  • Published November 25, 2023
  • Word count 991

Members of minority groups are often all too well aware of stereotypes. Other people stereotype them and end up discriminating against them. Eventually, fear of stereotypes may make them avoid certain activities.

Stereotypes hurt both people and society. After all, society is at its best when everyone is supported and included. By fighting stereotypes, we can make the world a better place.

Stereotype Threat

Have you ever heard a black parent tell their child “Stop acting out! White people are watching?”

“Stereotype threat” happens when someone thinks they’re at risk of confirming a stereotype about their group. This social and emotional burden can hold them back.

High achievers facing tough challenges are at higher risk.

Eventually, people may avoid some activities because they’re worried about stereotypes. For example, a disabled person might avoid asking for help because they don’t want to be seen as needy.

Poor performance

Researchers found that stereotype threat harms performance. When a stereotype threatens a member of a minority group, it distracts them. Then they’re more likely to fail to meet expectations.

Researchers have identified 3 ways that stereotype threat harms performance:

Physical stress response

Over-monitoring how they’re performing

Attempts to suppress negative thoughts and emotions

All this takes away physical and mental resources.

Knowing that members of the majority are watching also hurts. In one experiment, students were given a logic test and told that they’d be scored by either disabled or non-disabled students. The disabled students who expected to be scored by non-disabled students did worst.

Unfortunately, that can seem to confirm the stereotypes. And the person may even begin to believe it themselves.


People may start avoiding “risky” situations in the face of stereotype threat. They might start self-censoring and withdrawing. After all, nobody can stereotype you if nobody can see you.

For example, a disabled woman might be afraid to take on a leadership position at work because she’s worried she’ll be seen as weak.

Some people cope by distancing themselves from part of their identity. For example, a girl might say “I’m not like other girls,” or an autistic person might say “but I’m very high-functioning” to avoid the stereotypes. However, blending in with the majority isn’t always painless. Denying a part of who you are can hurt.

Attributional Uncertainty

“Did that lady help me because she’s a nice person, or because she sees me as helpless?”

Attributional uncertainty involves worries about why people are treating you a certain way. If someone is mean, maybe it’s because they’re cranky, or maybe it’s because they don’t like disabled people. If they’re nice, it might be because they’re a good person, or because they pity you.

It’s not a fun thing to try to calculate.

These worries can hurt someone’s confidence. It’s hard to feel proud when you’re praised if you think it might not be because you earned it. When you aren’t sure why you were praised or criticized, it’s hard to know what your skills and flaws really are.

When feedback is about who you are instead of what you do, you might start to feel helpless. This can hurt people’s motivation to keep trying things.

Stereotypes and Health

Mental well-being problems

It’s stressful to live with discrimination. Disabled people may feel discouraged, nervous, or frustrated about it.

A meta-analysis found that perceived discrimination has serious health consequences. It leads to heightened stress responses and less healthy habits.

Stress can also lead to physical issues.

Physical Health Problems

Researchers discovered that mental pressure caused by stereotype threat increases the risk of health problems. This includes respiratory failure, stroke, malignant growths, diabetes, and more.

JIn fact, the pressure from stereotypes is a more valid indicator of medical issues than other stressors.

Substance abuse

Stress can lead to substance abuse. Researchers have known for years that people in hostile environments are more likely to resort to drug use. Disabled people are no exception.

How Stereotypes Hurt Society

Discrimination isn’t over. The APA reports that 69% of adults say they’ve faced discrimination, and 61% say it happens daily. Cogentica’s nationwide survey in 2020 found 64 percent of the disabled stating they had been the subject of discrimination. This means many people are dealing with extra stress.

How much better could society be if discrimination was over? Without this burden holding people back, many people would achieve more.

Impact at Work

Workplace discrimination hurts workers. Instead of focusing on their work, they’re distracted by stress as they try to figure out how to avoid this happening to them again. They can face extra pressure and feel less satisfied at work.

Stereotypes and discrimination at work don’t just hurt the victims. Witnesses can also feel stressed, worrying about whether the victim is okay or if they will be next. These problems can turn a workplace toxic and stressful.

In an environment like that, it’s harder for people to work as a team. Focus and trust can erode in a hostile workplace. The low morale hurts the entire company.

Financial Harm

Fixing discrimination takes time and money. When a workplace discriminates, they can face fines from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the state. Legal action is also expensive.

When a worker faces discrimination or stereotypes, they may choose to leave. Then the company needs to find a replacement. This can cost up to 1/3 of the employee’s salary.

Finally, if the news becomes public, this hurts the company’s reputation. Formal or informal boycotts can cause them to lose business.

No Discrimination Allowed

All businesses should fight discrimination. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it protects their workers and their money. After all, a safe and happy company is a good company.

Many disabled people are talented and kind. They deserve to have a chance.

Robin Akins is the founder of Cogentica, LLC, a disability advocacy and information site founded in 2015. Dr. Akins is a quantitative psychologist with over 40 years of experience in business, government, and education with substantial teaching experience at the college level. He received his doctorate at Temple University in 1992.

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