Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Stigma and Health Conditions: Part III of a Series

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Stigma and Health Conditions: Part III of a Series

Article excerpt

(Authors' Note: While some of this article has been written in the first person as a matter of style, and due to the fact that one of the authors lives in the world of the stigmatized, it is really a joint enterprise.

In this section of a series, we address the challenge of building public awareness regarding the impact of stigmatization and what researchers are learning that can be applied to lessen stigmatizing behaviors and build a more helpful society.

Challenging our society to look at and understand how health stigmas impact everyone is a complex endeavor. Motivating people to change is even more so. However, social interactions are becoming better understood, thanks to what researchers are learning about human behavior. This knowledge offers hope that stigmatizing people with health conditions and disabilities can be lessened.)


Understanding Implicit Bias: Those of us who are vested in lessening the stigma surrounding health conditions can contribute to this change by increasing our understanding of how individuals form ideas and beliefs about others. This understanding is necessary before we can help others to change their ideas and behaviors, like putting on your oxygen mask first before a child's during an airplane emergency.

Stigma experts cite stereotyping as a precursor to stigma of all types. Below the level of human consciousness, stereotyping often begins as a pattern of unconscious thinking researchers call implicit bias. In an article by Jeremy Adam Smith (entitled "Why Teachers are More Likely to Punish Black Students") Smith describes the phenomenon as a bias in judgment and/or behavior that results from subtle cognitive processes that often operate at a level below conscious awareness. Implicit bias contributes to attitudes based on characteristics such as age, appearances, and ethnicity. But if implicit bias happens below the conscious level, that is without us knowing it is affecting us, is there any hope of changing it?

According to research, the answer is yes. There are practices that can limit implicit bias. In fact, just by reading this information you are changing. Research shows that simply being aware of the existence of implicit bias is helpful. Then if you add new, revised, more empathetic and respectful conscious intentions and goals, you can begin to override your own subconscious associations. We are all growing rather automatically as we experience daily life, but we can also grow intentionally. In order to enhance this growth, everyone needs to put in effort. One intentional way to grow is to practice identifying and contending with all the things that influences stereotyping. For instance, take a hard look at how people are portrayed in magazines and on television. Bring into your own consciousness any subtle stereotyping you discover. Then add to this awareness conscious intentions and goals. In this manner you can begin to override your subconscious associations.

Interesting research from scientists at Northwestern University has demonstrated that our biases need not be set in concrete. This research has shown that using counter stereotyping training techniques during sleep can help alter our implicit biases. Their findings, "Unlearning implicit social biases during sleep," were published in the May 29, 2015 edition of Science (, one of the most prestigious academic journals.

"What our work is doing," said Professor Ken Paller, senior author and professor of psychology, "is opening a discussion if a person wishes to decrease their bias, there are methods they can use that would have a lasting effect." He stated that another important implication is the research could broaden the discussion of how bias can be combated in society.

Their process begins with subjects participating in counter stereotyping training. After this training, scientists examined the potential to reinforce during sleep what the study participants had learned. …

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