Erving Goffman introduced the word “stigma” to describe the phenomenon of excluding persons with disabilities, morally unearned. They are marked with shame and disgrace.
People who do not have “ordinary and normal” characteristics are stigmatized.
During the Christian Middle Ages, criminals, slaves or traitors were tattooed, branded, or physically mutilated (including blinding) to mark them as undesirables. It was a mark of shame and disgrace. A person with a stigma is sub-human, inferior, or morally bad.
Society categorizes people as ordinary and natural based on certain characteristics and expectations. These categories become unconscious and automatics. They comprise a virtual social identity. A person who does not have normal characteristics will be perceived as tainted, bad, dangerous, or weak. These attributed evoke stigma, or shame.
There are three types of stigma. First, due to physical deformities. Second, due to qualities of character such as dishonesty, addiction, or unemployment. Finally, there are stigmas of race, nation, and religion. Children learn stigmas in school, and taunt without inhibition. The stereotypes are specific: blind people are not supposed to make jokes, or enjoy dancing.
The central feature is social acceptance. Stigma “spoils the social identity.” It is a form of “social death.” The victim internalizes the stigma in self-hate. As one said, looking in a mirror, “I saw a stranger, a little, pitiable, hideous figure.”
It disrupts every social interaction. “Looking for a job was like standing before a firing squad. Employers were shocked that I had the gall to apply for a job.”
[From L.M.C. Brown:]
During difficult economic times, there is increased aggression toward stigmatized groups. “Some people are stigmatized for violating norms, whereas others are stigmatized for being of little economic or political value.”
Not all “otherness” or “difference” is stigmatized. Stigmas reflect the values of the dominant group, which determines (consciously or unconsciously) which human differences are undesired and devalued to the point of stigma.
People with disabilities are constant reminders of the “negative body” – what the able-bodied are trying to avoid, forget, and ignore.
Western civilizations prize personal autonomy and independence. Excessive dependence and helplessness is associated with being child-like. Women are expected to be attractive. Adults should have children. Negative cultural views are reinforced by the media, clergy, health personnel, development agencies, and literature.
DOES THIS APPLY TO ME?
If you don’t have a visible disability now, and you live a long time, you may have one before you die. “Stigma” can describe how we treat the poor, older females, older people with infirmities. Immigrants we find strange.