Pride and Prejudice: PWDs and the Phenomenon of “Protective Prejudice”

Good evening, readers,

First, I’d like to say thank you to the writers and staff at Psychology Today for providing the idea for this post. Being an armchair shrink, I find psychology interesting, period, but this gem was particularly so. And you guys at PT will be glad to know that I did find it a “gem,” rather than just calling it that like I sometimes do when I’m being sarcastic.


So last night, I’m sitting at my gym, exhausted after a ten-mile workout, and darn it, I forgot to bring a book. My ride was still at the Zumba class going on, so I grabbed the aforementioned magazine, the November/December 2013 issue.¬†And right up front, I see this article on a phenomenon called “protective prejudice.” Of course, you’re probably wondering, what is “protective prejudice?”

The author of the article explained it thus: an “instinctual” reaction that humans have when confronted with disease. For example, to borrow from the magazine’s example, let’s say that Michael has a rare genetic disorder that causes noticeable skin lesions. Let’s say that Jeff will, also because of a genetic condition, never grow beyond four feet or so, even as a fully grown man. Let’s say that Angelique has what’s known as Bell’s palsy, a condition which means that one side of the face can become “locked.” As in, even if you smile, that frozen half might look like you’re scowling.

The author of the article, though she didn’t use all the same examples I just did, made the point that these people (presumably based on real folks) have to explain these conditions to people every day. Thus, we have “protective prejudice.” That is, some people–I would hope and pray most people–will be understanding when confronted with one of these conditions. But according to PT, humans have this instinct that says, “Go away! Don’t give me what you’ve got”–even if the thing in question isn’t communicable. It was explained that in theory, this is what humans learned to do to avoid getting all kinds of diseases, not just ones that, so to speak, “look weird” or look scary, or cause disabilities.

To a point, I can buy that. For example, right now, my entire immediate family is ill with a stomach bug, the likes of which reminds me of Montezuma’s Revenge. So their reaction? “Stay away–you don’t want it!” My reaction? “Yeah, you’re right, I don’t want it!”

The problem comes in, though, when we measure “protective prejudice” against the modern world, particularly when it comes to conditions that are more genetic and/or disability driven than actual diseases. (Disability is, 99.9% of the time, NOT a disease, despite the fact that the medical community often describes them as such). We have, as PT puts it, gotten to a point where we overreact to disease and disability. That is, okay, we don’t want disease. Being sick sucks. And I can even understand that, if you don’t have a disability, you wouldn’t necessarily want one. Plus, most of us would like to believe we’re too polite–dare I say compassionate–to verbally say to a person with a disability, “Ew, go away!”

I contend, though, that we don’t have as much compassion as we should, or as we claim. Why? Because our words may say “you’re okay, your disability is okay,” but our actions and body language scream, “GO AWAY!” I don’t think it’s because we think we’ll “catch” what the PWD has, whether that’s Bell’s palsy, dwarfism, cerebral palsy, or whatever. I do think we’re scared. It’s another result of that instinctual recoiling from what’s scary or threatening.

But just because prejudice might be instinctual, it doesn’t mean there’s a modicum of excuse. After all, 99.9% of us wouldn’t act prejudiced, silently or vocally, toward a Hispanic person and say, “I got scared because Hispanics are ‘different.'” Yet, we do it to PWDs, whether verbally or not. We even tell ourselves, on some level, that it’s okay. Because that person in a wheelchair may be strapped in, their limbs jerking, or drooling, right in front of us. That person with an intellectual disability–a fully grown person–may be throwing a tantrum right in front of us. We may not even know “that person,” but we were taught to fear PWDs on some level. Or maybe we see them in public and instinctively protect ourselves from their realities.

It’s not okay. Why? Because “Prejudice is a weaponized emotion.” Emotions can hurt. Even happiness can hurt. Proverbs tells us that “even in laughter, the heart may ache.” But prejudice, I contend, not only hurts. It kills–the spirit if not the body. It is a weapon, and it’s as lethal as an IED (Improvised Explosive Device).

I learned this lesson the hard way, before reading the article. You see, in some twisted way, I’m discovering I’m prejudiced against myself for having a disability. I’m not sure entirely why, but my guess is that, because my CP is mild, I’ve absorbed this idea, from childhood forward, that I don’t have the excuse to “act disabled.” (Whatever that means. But I’m guessing you can come up with some examples yourself). And whenever something does happen that makes me “look” like someone with CP, I feel like I let myself down because, “Oh, great, now I look like the stereotype.”

This got to the point that it came up when my mom and I were discussing online dating as a possibility for me to find a romantic relationship. She asked me if I’d ever seen any sites for PWD dating. Now, I could’ve said, “I haven’t looked yet” which was true. I could’ve said, “Mom, I’m not sure I want to do that–what if he needed more care than I did, or what if his disability was even milder than mine and he thought I was too needy and–well, disabled?” Also true. What I said instead was,

“If I did that, I’d end up with somebody who sits in a wheelchair and slobbers.”

I know. I was appalled, too. I don’t think I fully realized until then that having a mild disability can plant you square in accepting the stereotypes. This was partially true because I have only ever met another PWD with a mild disability once or twice. In fact, the very first adult with a disability I remember meeting, as a teenager, was a man in my church who used a wheelchair and could not control his head, limbs, or bodily functions.

Not that that’s an excuse. It’s not. I still engaged in protective prejudice, even if, on some level, it was “just” because of self-doubt.

I learned this lesson the tough way, readers. Don’t you do it, too. Remember, PWDs wheel among you–but they walk and drive, too. A good number of us are invisible. Don’t fear those of us whose disabilities are visible–and then maybe those who are invisible will want to come out more.


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