NEW WILMINGTON, Pa.- This semester I was met with a unique challenge. In my Digital Media Essentials class I had an assignment for which I had to choose an accessibility issue to report on.
My professor emphasized that he wanted us to interact with people who are different from us in this project. As a person in a wheelchair I am well versed in issues facing the disabled community. I could have easily went on a tirade about how there needs to be more handicap accessible ramps or made another “A Day in the life of a Wheelchair User” video; however, I wanted to challenge myself to think outside of the box.
I finally came to the realization that to interact with people who are different than my advocacy-minded self, I would need to interact with people I disagreed with. My mind instantly went to people who spew hateful or ignorant things on the internet. I follow several disabled public figures on social media who receive disparaging comments on the internet about their disabilities. I wanted to get inside the heads of those hateful people.
So I went online and began to look for ignorant comments regarding disability. It was honestly more difficult than I had anticipated. I thought I would find comments more disparaging than the ones I found. Zach Anner is a popular comedian who has cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair. His speech is slurred due to spasticity and I saw numerous comments in which people said that he sounded drunk. He can’t help the way he speaks so to make that comment is rude.
Many more of the comments I found were about physical appearance and rude jokes regarding disability. I responded to these people by telling them that their comments are inappropriate and asking them what made them say the things they said. Very few responded to me and I did not get very dramatic dialogues going. This surprised me. Why would these people back down now when they said such dramatic things so boldly?
I decided to consult an expert to find out why this happened. Professor Sherri Pataki is a psychology professor who is currently teaching a class called The Psychology of Prejudice. The class explores different aspects of prejudice, the psychological theories behind them and ways to combat prejudice.
In my interview with Dr. Pataki she explained that some people might say rude things as a result of social learning. This means that they say certain things or have preconceived ideas regarding disability because the people around them hold these ideas or engage in these behaviors. I asked Dr. Pataki why these people either didn’t respond to my reply or responded in a much more subdued way. Dr. Pataki said that this was most likely due to one of two things: The first is that I actually changed their minds on the topic and they realized how wrong they were. The second is that they now realize that they’ve been called out for saying something harmful and feel pressured to not do it again. So, they don’t necessarily feel bad, but realize there are consequences.
I asked Dr. Pataki about ways to minimize prejudice and combat stereotyping. She said that it is vitally important for individuals to dig deep into themselves and consider what stereotypes they have bought into. Everyone does this to a degree. The important thing is to catch yourself when you engage in stereotyping so that you can combat it.
Trying to engage with people who say negative things toward the community I belong to and take pride in my membership of was at times uncomfortable and frustrating. It is very easy to discount what people say as horrible and then discount them and their opinions as a whole, but it is important to remember that the whole big picture is much more complex.