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Coping With the Stigma of Having a Physical Disability

By HERWriter
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Mental Health related image Photo: Getty Images

Stigma is a part of everyday life for most people, but for those women who are part of stigmatized groups, it can be devastating to their emotional health if they don't know how to cope properly.

One example of a stigmatized population is women with physical disabilities.

Rhoda Olkin, a distinguished professor at the California School of Professional Psychology, had polio when she was only 1 and grew up with her disability. According to Medline Plus, polio is “a viral disease that can affect nerves and can lead to partial or full paralysis.”

Since Olkin had an early-onset disability, she has had to cope with stigma throughout her life. In the process of developing her career as a psychologist, she has experienced more stigma with supervisors than with clients.

“As a therapist with a disability, clients assume things about me that are actually very helpful for therapy,” Olkin said. “They assume I know what suffering is, they assume I know what it means to be downtrodden or stigmatized, and assuming that I’m empathic. Those are positive things to attribute to a therapist, whether they’re true or not. So it’s often been a helpful thing as a therapist.”

Olkin can attest to the stigmatization of the physically disabled population.

“Stigma in general means that a person is thought of as being ‘other,’” Olkin said. “It’s like a big separation between us and them … people with disabilities have always been thought of as the other.”

She said people without disabilities have kept this stigma going.

“People without disabilities have lots of ways that they perpetuate that, because the idea that disability can happen to anyone is very very threatening and scary,” Olkin said. “The more you divorce yourself or distance yourself from disability, the more you protect yourself from the idea that it could happen to you.”

Stigma can have a lot of negative effects for those who are being stigmatized, including discrimination, prejudice and stereotypes. For example, children with disabilities were not allowed in school for many years. In other cases, people with non-disabilities treat people with disabilities as if they are inferior.

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EmpowHER Guest

I find your observation interesting about stigma and supervisors. I have a Psy.D. that I achieved in 1993 and I am also a person with paraplegia. The school was incredibly ill-equipped and and ill-informed about "disability issues." Given that the disabled community is 20% of our society, they should be training clinicians on how to manage this unique and dynamic group of people.

May 20, 2015 - 12:29pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.