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Disability Bias

April 5, 2015

There are many forms of bias that permeate our society. We have all seen the studies that indicate that people who are tall, thin, pretty, handsome, and have outgoing personalities are more likely to get a job, a promotion or have better success finding a mate. However, none of those attributes actually tell us anything about what kind of person they are. They do not describe their character, their integrity, their work ethic or their generosity. They do not tell us if the person is trustworthy, honest, forgiving or compassionate. They are simply unimportant characteristics that society incorrectly places great value on.

Have you ever faced bias because of your physical appearance, or intellectual ability? Have you ever experienced prejudice based on something you have no control over such as your age or gender? Have you ever been the victim of cultural stereotyping because of your ethnicity or nationality? Have you ever been unfairly judged by others simply because of who you are?

For the 4.6 million American citizens who have a developmental disability there appears to be a level of bias very similar to what is found in the general population. It is a bias based on physical features, verbal skills, motor function, personality type and a host of other qualities that are used to determine whether or not a person’s intellectual challenge is acceptable to the public.

An example of this can be found in the occasional TV commercial that includes a person with a developmental disability. It usually shows an adorable child who is bubbly, energetic and radiates cuteness. That is fine. There is nothing wrong with that. People with intellectual challenges are underrepresented in all forms of media, so that type of exposure benefits everyone. But there are millions of human beings who do not fit into the narrow parameters of what the public finds as an acceptable representation of a person with a developmental disability, any more than most of us fit the perfect images of slender beautiful women or tall muscular men. Practically all of us fail to measure up to the unrealistic standards set by the media.

What we are far less likely to see on television is a child who has to wear a protective helmet at all times for their safety. Or a child that has difficulty controlling their saliva. Or a child with autism who’s self-stimulatory behavior is startling. Or a child whose speech cannot be understood. Or a child with cerebral palsy whose lack of muscle control makes them spasm involuntarily. Because children with challenges like these are thought to be less telegenic they are kept out of sight of the viewing public.

Those of us who write about people with developmental disabilities do our best to accurately present a positive, yet realistic, view of our world. We attempt to enlighten society about the lives of those with intellectual challenges. But as we celebrate the accomplishments, achievements and amazing qualities possessed by the people we care about we must also consider how the problem of bias adversely affects those that don’t fit the media image of what a disability should be like.


Consider the following comparisons.

We respect those who can keep up with the fast pace of modern life. However, we do not want to be bothered with assisting those who are left behind.

We gravitate to the articulate person that we can easily have a conversation with, but we are reluctant to interact with the person who is nonverbal or has a speech disorder that requires effort on our part to communicate with them.

We are drawn to the individual who has a pleasant personality, but we avoid the person who struggles with depression that interferes with their ability to function.

We are more accepting of someone who is ambulatory and can keep up with us and less so of someone who has a mobility issue that makes them move slowly and causes us to have to wait on them.

We are comfortable around those who have no visible health issues, but we are tentative around those who are prone to choking, have seizures or deal with incontinence.

We willingly interact with people who have a firm grasp on reality, but we feel ill at ease around those whose awareness fades in and out.

We welcome the company of someone who enjoys conversation and has a sense of humor while we have little patience for someone who continually shouts out repetitive phrases in an attempt to communicate in the only way they can.

We enjoy spending time with people who are relaxed and easy going, but we shun those who are emotionally volatile and have difficulty controlling their temper.

We feel at ease with an individual who can safely cross a street and move around the community without constant supervision, but we feel it is a burden when someone must be monitored at all times for their health and safety.


It is because of issues such as these that we must be vigilant that we do not fall into the trap of bestowing preferential treatment on some while we neglect others.

When a person is viewed as a nuisance instead of as a human being, by the very people who are supposed to care for them and support them, their lives can become intolerable. To be judged as somehow inferior because of something you have no control over is wrong. To be deemed a problem because of how your mind and body work is not fair. To be excluded because you do not fit a meaningless stereotype of a person with a developmental disability is not right. Just because someone requires extra attention and effort does not make them less. Every person’s life has the same value.

Here is a real life situation.

Two women with developmental disabilities start working for an organization within a few weeks of each other. 20 years later they both retire. One person is naturally outgoing. She is physically graceful, articulate and has a variety of job skills. Over the years she has made many friends. She is happily making the decision to retire on her own. She has personal interests she would like to pursue, and she wants more free time to enjoy her life. When her last day of work arrives she is thrown a party. Everyone expresses their best wishes and tells her how much she will be missed. It is a heartwarming sendoff for someone who was perceived to have added real value to the organization. That is not unusual. It is to be expected. That is the way it should be.

But a few months later the other individual has to retire for health reasons. This person is quiet, and she generally keeps to herself. Over the years she has had a series of health issues, but she always struggled to get back to work because her employment was important to her. She has far fewer job skills, and she lives with serious physical and mobility challenges. However she has maintained her dedication to the organization, and it is only because of her increasing health problems that she has agreed to retire. But sadly no one is told when this person will be leaving. Because she does not have an outgoing personality she is frequently on the fringes of activities, often barely noticed. Because her work pace was compromised by physical restrictions, she has spent her years being employed without receiving the recognition she deserved. When her last day arrives there is no party. There are no wishes for a happy retirement. No one tells her she will be missed. She does not even receive a card for giving 20 years of her life to a job that meant everything to her. That is not right. It is unacceptable, and it shouldn’t happen.

Both of these individuals gave their best effort during their employment, but it was the perceptions, right or wrong, of their coworkers and the management that determined what level of appreciation and respect they were each shown for doing their jobs as proficiently as possible.

Too often favorable opinions are based on a person’s ability to downplay or minimize the appearance of their disability. While a less favorable opinion results when the manifestations of someone’s disability are obvious and cannot be hidden. That is why we must make every effort to ensure that people with severe challenges regarding their intellectual level, their personalities, their emotional state, their physical capabilities and their maturity are treated with the same dignity accorded to those whose disabilities are less apparent.

Under no circumstances can we ever allow ourselves to think that someone does not matter. We must always respect their humanity. We must continue to reach out to them and connect in meaningful ways. We cannot fall into the tendency of only paying attention to those who are the easiest to get along with or have the fewest issues. To show bias towards someone because their particular challenges are more complex is inexcusable.

Every person with a developmental disability deserves to be treated fairly and compassionately.