Saturday, November 20, 2010

"Anti-stigma" vs. "Social Inclusion"

There has been a lot of effort lately put into fighting stigma.  This is particularly true in the field of mental health, but also in many other areas.  

I would like to suggest that talking about stigma is stigmatizing in itself - that it creates an "us and them" mentality.  Instead, I am advocating that we promote "social inclusion" as a more positive way to look at the same issue.  I believe social inclusion takes it one step further.  A person can be not stigmatized, but still not feel socially included, which is what I think we are all looking for.  An absense of a negative does not necessarily mean a positive.

A quick Twitter search of the word "stigma" pulled up results related to: mental health, STDs, being female, wearing Ugg boots (really?), shoe size, AIDS, online dating, Alzheimer's, ADHD, Direct to Video movie releases, being gay, cancer, product recalls, homelessness, and being single.  Wow - there are sure a lot of people feeling stigmatized.  If we look hard, couldn't we all find something we are stigmatized for?

However, some stigmas appear to be worse than others.  Perhaps there is a continuum of stigma.  Where would you be on the continuum?  I really do not believe there is any such thing as "normal" or "perfect" when it comes to people.  That is part of the beauty of being human - it is because we are so different from each other that we have so much to share.

When it comes to building accessible environments, I love the term "Universal Design".  I can't tell you how many times I have been grateful for a larger bathroom stall to use with my two small children, or a button to open a door when my hands are full.  What works well for one population group can also work well for many others.  Calling a bathroom stall the "handicapped" stall or "wheelchair" stall reminds me of apartheid. 

Don't get me wrong - I still believe in priority use of of accessible environments for people who have disabilities.  A good example is the front seats on our city buses - anyone can sit there, but if someone comes in who needs a front seat more (e.g. with disability or pregnant), you are asked to move.  Accommodations for different abilities and disabilities are important so that all people have the opportunity to be socially included. 

It seems to me that people are people, and we really are more similar than we are different.  Focusing on stigma seems to emphasize those differences.  Let's build on our similarities and create a society that can include everyone, whether they wear Uggs or not :)

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