People who self-identify as "disable" are more likely to develop pride in their disability, a shift in thinking that can help build resilience and change public attitudes about the "disabled" label, according to two new studies led by researchers at Oregon State University (OSU).
"The challenge with disability as a label is that it's so mired in stigma that people don't want that label," noted Kathleen Bogart, an assistant professor of psychology in the OSU College of Liberal Arts. "Roughly 15 percent of the world's population has some kind of disability but just a fraction of those people actually identify themselves as people with disabilities."
Her research tries to answer questions: "Can we reduce the stigma and reframe the label as a neutral label that is just useful as a category, like male or female? Or taking it even further, can we shift the label to the point where people have pride in that label?"
Bogart and her collaborators explored issues around disability self-identification and disability pride in two studies published in the journal Rehabilitation Psychology.
In the first study, which tried to examine who is most likely to self-identify as disabled, about 700 people over age 18 completed an online survey that asked them to identify health conditions they had by checking boxes, or if their condition was not listed, filling in a box. Among the most common impairments were allergies, anxiety, depression, migraines, back injury or pain, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, respiratory disease, hypertension and chronic pain.
In addition, participants were asked to rate characteristics of their health condition, such as whether it affects daily life, how often it causes physical pain and how often it is noticeable to other people; to complete a questionnaire about whether they experienced stigma and discrimination because of their condition; and to answer whether they identify as a person with a disability.
While only 12 percent of people with a health condition agreed or strongly agreed that they were a person with a disability, the researchers found that experiencing stigma, along with severity of the impairment, were the biggest factors influencing whether someone with a disability identified that way.
In the second study, designed to look further at the role disability pride plays in overall well-being for people with disabilities, the researchers used the same set of about 700 survey participants from the previous study, but looked at additional questions, by analyzing factors that influence whether someone has pride in their disability.
They found that disability pride tended to be more prevalent among those who experience stigma, those who have strong social support and people of color; and that people experiencing greater stigma seemed to lead to more pride, and greater pride was associated with greater self-esteem.
The findings support "the idea that the concept of disability is primarily a social construct, developed by society's reaction to that impairment," Bogart was quoted as saying in a news release. "It's the way people treat you and the way society builds an environment that does or does not include you."
However, she believes that developing pride in the disability and rejecting the stigma of society shows promise as a way to protect against stigma and build self-esteem.
"Disability pride is still a rare thing," she acknowledged. "Developing disability pride seems to protect self-esteem against the negative effects of stigma. It's a really valuable protection for people with disabilities."
"A logical next step for the research would be to develop interventions designed to boost disability pride among people with disabilities and at a policy level, with the goal of improving overall well-being and reducing stigma."