Stereotypes of Students with Disabilities


By: Ryan Giasullo
Melissa LoStocco
Megan Wax

In the Media

Unfortunately, people with disabilities have been ostracized in both media and the entertainment industry. Their exploitation dates back centuries to the times when jokers and jesters were used to entertain the royals as the "court fool." This stereotype of people with disabilities being a form of entertainment was only the beginning of many more stereotypes that were to follow.

Today things are no different as many movies, songs, and comedy sketches make fun of individuals with disabilities in the cruelest ways. Stereotypes are embellished and acted out, physical differences and disabilities are laughed at and it all sells as simply "a joke" or "a clever lyric." Laughing at the expense of a person with a disability should not be acceptable, in fact it teaches young children to imitate these behaviors and only further perpetuates the cycle of stereotyping those with disabilities. The following movies, lyrics and sketches are just a few of the examples of stereotypes portrayed throughout different types of media. While some of these movies, songs, and videos can be rather upsetting to watch or learn about, it is important to look at them. Recognizing the stereotypes that the media has created for people with disabilities is the only way to begin to address correcting the problem. Once these stereotypes have been noted as harmful and more importantly, untrue, attempts to avoid or diminish these stereotypes can then be taken. It is with the intent of preventing stereotypes that these examples are included and not to offend anyone. The hope is that the more these stereotypes are addressed and called out, the sooner these stereotypes can be eliminated completely.

It is also important to note that it is through the media that all of these stereotypes of people with disabilities spread into our everyday lives. We are all influenced by the media, whether we like to believe it or not, and by watching/hearing movies, songs, or sketches that stereotype against people with disabilities, people are much more apt to repeat these stereotypes in everyday conversation. Younger children, especially, are more easily influenced by the media and have a tendency to repeat and believe just about anything they hear in the media. Limiting, or potentially completely avoiding, the stereotypes of disabilities in the media will begin to address the harm caused to people with disabilities.

"You went full retard, man...never go full retard."
"You went full retard, man...never go full retard."
"Incredible; this guy is the Deion Sanders of retards."
"Incredible; this guy is the Deion Sanders of retards."
"Those goofy bastards are about the best thing I got goin."
"Those goofy bastards are about the best thing I got goin."

Song Lyrics:
"Bonfire"-Childish Gambino...."I made the beat retarded so I'm calling it a slow jam."
"Let's Get Retarded"-Black Eyed Peas...."Let's get into it, let's get stupid, let's get retarded in here."
"Boom"-Lil Wayne...."Flow retarded when I spit I get my drool on."
"Ignorant Sh*t"-Drake...."My gun go crazy like it's retarded."

Comedy: (Note: The following videos contain language which may not be suitable for all.)
Daniel Tosh

Stephen Lynch

Physical Disabilities

Physical Disability is loosely used to refer to an impairment of the body, which can either be a result of injury or disease or it can be congenital. In every case, the physical disability limits or restricts the person in performance in home, school/work, and societal actions. Physical disabilities are often visible to the eye; however, this is not always the case. Aside from effecting physical mobility, these disabilities may impair a person's hearing, sight, and ability to communicate. A list of a few examples of visible and invisible physical disabilities is listed below:

Cerebral Palsy: is a non-progressive condition where the brain’s motor are is damaged, and thus the person has trouble with walking, holding items, swallowing, and other fine motor skills.
Multiple Sclerosis: A disorder in the central nervous system which impairs nerves ability to send signals to the brain. This is progressive disease limits the person’s ability to perform find motor skills.
Muscular Dystrophy: A genetic, progressive disease which causes the deterioration of muscle proteins and fibers.
Parkinson’s Disease: A progressive disease which affects the brain’s ability to control muscle movements, resulting in tremors and thus difficulty with balance, walking, and fine motor skills such as opening bottles.
Paralysis: Caused by damage to the spinal cord or nervous system which then completely disables the person’s ability to move the muscles in the affected area.
Blindness: The inability to completely or partially see visually, caused by multiple diseases and traumas
Meniere's Disease:** A disorder where the fluid in the ears cannot be regulated and can cause vertigo, constant ringing, or loss of hearing.

Physical Disabilities do not discriminate against age, gender or race; they can affect people of all ages in all parts of world at various points in their lives. Some people are born with the disability while others gain them as they age for biological reasons or as a result of traumas such as car accidents or war injuries. As medical advances improve every year and life expectancy of people with disabilities is increasing, they now make up a larger portion of the world’s population than ever. Because of this, we must educate ourselves to ensure that society functions as a way to promote growth and success of every individual.

Due to the visual appearance of many physical disabilities as well as the assistive technology, people with physical disabilities often fall prey to societal stereotypes and misconceptions. Specifically, people who are assisted with wheelchairs, walkers, canes, and guide dogs often withstand the worst of these prejudices. Some of the common stereotypes are listed below:
  • Low IQ or cannot learn
  • Lonely losers, with no friends
  • Cannot have sexual relationships
  • Socially uncomfortable and awkward due to their impairment
  • Everyday life is a hassle
  • Dependent, needy
  • Too independent, wants to be the hero
  • Feeble
  • Cripple
  • Broken

True of most all stereotypes of minority groups, these beliefs are not true and detrimental to the mental health of the affected person. In nearly all cases of physical disabilities, there is no impact on the person’s mental and intellectual ability. They are active participants in our society who happen to seek alternate ways to achieve their goals and happiness. They are capable of all “normal” aspects of life including academic success, dream careers, love and relationships, and recreational activities. The better educated the non-disabled are, the sooner we can put aside the belittling stereotypes and maximize on everyone’s societal contributions.

Personal Accounts

"Disability is not a brave struggle or 'courage in the face of adversity.' Disability is an art. It's an ingenious way to live." - Neil Marcus

Perhaps one of the most influential ways to learn about physical disabilities and the ways in which they affect everyday lives is hearing first-hand accounts. Anyone can make assumptions about the value of life and thus the possible achievements and happiness of a person with a disability, however those beliefs would be nothing more than assumptions, or more clearly, nothing more than a guess. It is our hope that these accounts enlighten you on how those with a physical disability feel about them and how aforementioned stereotypes can be damaging and frustrating.

"I don't think I'm good because I'm blind; I think I'm good because I'm good."- Ray Charles

I was accused of overcompensating with the tennis. I would walk into one classroom and be told I was too independent and walk into the next one and told I was too dependent. Literally. And told I was upsetting the older children by not letting them carry my case for me, which I knew was crap. But nevertheless it upset me, all these accusations.” - Merry Cross (advocate for equal rights of the physically disabled, on her own school experiences)

“Unfortunately the access sign, which actually refers to wheelchair access, and shows a person in a wheelchair, has become synonymous with the word "disabled" and that connection is continually stamped into people's minds. If you're in a wheelchair that can mean either that you're deaf, dumb and stupid, or that you're a goddess on wheels. That's just the adulation thing, the hushed adulation. That happens to me quite a lot, I've had just as much of that response as the other. People approach you, when they wouldn't approach anyone else.”- Micheline Mason

“When I was in the wheelchair for three weeks, I was appalled. People patted me on the head and called me "dear" and offered to do things for me that were ludicrous. They really did assume that I was mentally retarded. It was very evident to me that, had I been in a wheelchair, I would have experienced much worse discrimination all over the place. I really think most professionals are no better at it than the ordinary person.”- Merry Cross
"It is a waste of time to be angry about my disability. One has to get on with life and I haven't done badly. People won't have time for you if you are always angry or complaining."-Stephen Hawkings (physicist/mathematician, wheelchair user)

"Here we've got a man who's thirty-four, is paralyzed down one side, lacks strength on the other, has extensive brain damage, but whose capacity for verbal reasoning, according to the intelligence test at least, is slightly above average. He has been systematically robbed of his dignity." - Merry Cross

"In general, people with physical disabilities have simply one request. That is, 'See the Person, Not the Disability.'

Classroom Implications

Unlike other stereotypes of people with disabilities, the portrayal of these beliefs is often represented in nonverbal ways and through actions in which the doer believes he/she is helping. However, the continuous and repeated actions, words, beliefs, and media portrayal can cause negative life-long implications on the person with the disability. The best way to combat these sometimes unintentional stereotypes it to educate yourself. Listed here are suggestions that every teacher should consider and implement in order to avoid stereotyping and maximize every student’s learning.

  • Classroom Layout:
    • First, ensure that all materials are within the reach and height of someone who may be using a wheelchair. This includes any books, papers, pencil sharpeners, chalk, etc.
    • Design your classroom to minimize obstacles someone with a cane or wheelchair would hit. Setting up desks in a U shape is a popular layout. Keep in mind that you do NOT want this person to feel singled out; therefore, if you change seats for the non-disabled students, you should also do so for the student with the disability. (Consider the type of necessary desk or chair, its height, mobility, necessary technology, etc.)
  • Communication:
    • For a person with a wheelchair, sit down and speak at eye level when communicating with him/her.
    • Position yourself in front of him/her in a way that is not obvious but minimizes the mobility required to speak to you.
    • Be aware of the disability, it is often not the case that you need to yell when speaking.
    • Do not speak slowly as if he/she does not speak English; it is a physical disability, not an intellectual one.
    • Do not be afraid to use terms such as running, he/she also uses them when it is fitting.
    • Feel free to kindly ask him/her to repeat if you cannot understand. It is better to have an intelligent conversation then to just nod along.
  • Interactions
    • ALWAYS ask before helping. Do not assume he/she needs your help. If he/she says no, accept that answer and move on.
    • Do not portray the idea that the assistive technology (wheelchairs, canes, hearing devices) are disabling, they are enabling.
    • Never touch a wheelchair without asking. It often becomes part of him/her, and if you would not touch their body, do not touch the chair. This means do not lean, sit, or anything else without permission.
  • Teaching
    • Remember that physical disability does not mean intellectual disability.
    • Keep the same standards equal for all students. If you would not extend the deadline for a nondisabled student, do not do so for one that has a physical disability.
    • Ensure all class activities and rewards are do not eliminate students ability to participate.
    • Seek out resources in the school and community for the student and for your own knowledge. In doing so, you will become a more active participant in PPT meetings and a stronger advocate for your student.
    • Finally, EDUCATE ALL! Educate your other students, colleagues, family, and friends on the disability and linked stereotypes, misconceptions, and appropriate means of interaction. It is the only way for negative stereotypes to completely diminish.

Intellectual Disabilities

An intellectual disability is defined by the Center for Disease Control as "a term used when there are limits to a person's ability to learn at an expected level and function in daily life," and "it can be caused by injury, disease, or a problem in the brain." An intellectual disability can be present (but not always known immediately) at birth or it can be developed as a result of injury or disease. There are a very wide range of intellectual disabilities, varying from a learning disability to Down syndrome. In other words, some intellectual disabilities are rather mild (less inhibiting), while others can be more severe and majority of the time, these disabilities originate before the age of 18. Here is a list of a few common intellectual disabilities:
  • Learning disability: disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. (a few LDs are listed below)
    • ADD/ADHD: attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, the core symptoms are developmentally inappropriate levels of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. These problems are persistent and usually cause difficulties in one or more major life areas: home, school, work, or social relationships.
    • Dyslexia: having difficulties with specific language skills, particularly reading. Students with dyslexia usually experience difficulties with other language skills such as spelling, writing, and pronouncing words
  • Down Syndrome: a condition in which a baby is born with an extra chromosome
  • Autism Disorder: significant language delays, social and communication challenges, and unusual behaviors and interests. Many people with autistic disorder also have intellectual disability

Though most intellectual disabilities are not visible just by looking at a person, when others are aware of these disabilities, it has become habit for stereotypes to be made. One of the worst places for these stereotypes to originate is in school, when students are aware of the students placed in special education and as a result are teased or bullied for their disability. It is unfair to label someone based on a disability that most people are born with and is out of their control. Some of the most common stereotypes of those with intellectual disabilities are listed below:
  • "Stupid' or cannot learn
  • Incapable of having friends or relationships
  • Bad parents
  • Unable to hold a job
  • Everyday life is a struggle (or if they do "overcome" their disability, they are seen as a hero)

Of course, all of these stereotypes are untrue. While it may take a person with an intellectual disability a little longer to learn something, they are in every way capable of learning. It is important for people to understand this and to realize that people with intellectual disabilities are capable human beings. They can go to school, have a relationship, hold a job, and do just about anything else that a person without an intellectual disability could do. Depending on the severity of the intellectual disability, they may require assistance to perform some daily activities. For example, there are parents with learning disabilities who require help caring for their children (helping with homework, transportation, etc.) It is important that as a society, we begin to recognize each person's capabilities and refrain from constantly trying to stereotype and classify individuals.

Personal Accounts

"The looks, the stares, the giggles . . . I wanted to show everybody that I could do better and also that I could read."-Magic Johnson, NBA player for the Los Angeles Lakers, diagnosed with Dyslexia

"Autism is not something I have. It is integral to who I am. Eliminate the autism, and you eliminate me. When you say you want a cure, you are saying I should be put to death. Think about it."-Parrish S. Knight, diagnosed with Autism

"Having Down syndrome means nothing to me, I'm special like everyone else. I do not let people judge me for having Down syndrome. The important thing is how I feel about myself. On the inside, I feel beautiful."-Edward Barbanell, played Billy in "The Ringer," diagnosed with Down syndrome

Through these accounts of people with intellectual disabilities, it is evident that they embrace their so-called "disability." These people are proud of who they are and it important that others view them in the same regard. Magic Johnson and Edward Barbanell are only a few famous names of people with disabilities. They are extremely successful individuals and it only proves that an intellectual disability does not prevent success. It should be noted that these people do not see themselves as being heroes for "overcoming" their disabilities or that their lives are a tragedy for having to cope with a disability. All too often, this stereotype is made and it is important that it be recognized that they are just as contributing individuals to society as people without disabilities.

The following video is full of inspirational quotes from people with disabilities that are proving wrong the many stereotypes made against them. It is through the personal accounts and disproving the stereotypes that others will begin to eliminate the use of these stereotypes.

Classroom Implications

In an effort to eliminate stereotyping students with intellectual disabilities, the answer lies in the classroom. One of the many roles of a teacher should be to teach students to understand students with disabilities better and discourage stereotyping. Real teaching opportunities lie in having open discussions with students about disabilities and teach students to embrace all students, disability or not.

Depending on the intellectual disability, some students will be present in the regular classroom throughout an entire day, while other students will spend some of the time in a special education classroom. Special education teachers are trained to work with students with intellectual disabilities, but some regular classroom teachers are not as knowledgeable as they perhaps should be when teaching these students. Fortunately, there are many available resources for regular classroom teachers to offer strategies in teaching their students who may be diagnosed with an intellectual disability. A list of the most common strategies are listed below:
  • Differentiate lessons
  • Modify the curriculum
  • Teach one concept at a time
  • Teach in small groups, or one-on-one with student
  • Use physical, written and verbal cues throughout class
  • Have students write assignments and all work down
By incorporating these strategies, among many more throughout the class, students with intellectual disabilities will be able to succeed in their classes. For more information, visit LD Online, Learning Disabilities Association of America, or Project Ideal.

Emotional Disabilities

Emotional disabilities are perhaps the most misunderstood and least researched disabilities in the world today. For people with emotional disabilities life is a constant struggle that very often is invisible to the world around them. For someone who has a physical disability or an intellectual disability there are tools and resources in place to help overcome. However, for someone with an emotional disability this is often not the case. Many times this emotional disability goes unidentified for years, sometimes even decades. As defined under IDEA, emotional disability is a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child's educational performance:
    • An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
    • An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.
    • Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.
    • A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
    • A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.
Some emotional disabilities include:
  • Borderline Personality Disorder: A disorder characterized by long episodes of disturbance in personality function. People with BPD have chaotic and unstable interpersonal relationships, self-image, and behavior. They fluctuate between idealizing and demonizing people, splitting the world into black and white.
  • Schizophrenia: A disorder in which the person becomes emotionally unresponsive and sees a disintegration of thoughts. Symptoms include hallucinations, paranoia and social dysfunction.
  • Major Depressive Disorder: Characterized by recurring and prolonged bouts of low-self esteem and self-worth and a loss of enjoyment in normal activities.
  • Asperger's Syndrome: This disorder causes extreme difficulty in social interaction and a tendency to repeat familiar behaviors. People with Asperger's Syndrome often seem to be disconnected from the world and appear to come off as rude, angry, or stand-offish.
  • Bipolar Disorder: Characterized as an episodic disorder, people with bipolar disorder experience extreme shifts in high and low feelings which are off-set by periods of normal behavior. However, the shifts between moods can be very rapid and moods fluctuate between extremes
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: An anxiety disorder in which a person performs ritualistic behaviors repeatedly in order to combat anxiety.
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Brought on by a psychologically traumatic event, people with PTSD experiences flashbacks and nightmares that relive the trauma. The recursion of the experiences is often brought on by a stimulus similar to one in the event (i.e. for a war-veteran with PTSD, fireworks can trigger flashbacks).
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder: A disorder in which a person repeatedly and seemingly without reason chooses to defy the wishes, requests, or commands of an authority figure. The behavior often manifests itself in rage, stubbornness, and the want to argue or fight.
  • People with emotional disabilities are commonly written off as just crazy, eccentric, or out-there, but many times these people are suffering inside and the world around them and their support systems do not see it. These stereotypes are very harmful to those living with emotional disabilities because it aims to discredit the disorder that is affecting them. We are learning more and more about emotional disabilities every day and as our knowledge of them grows, so does our ability to support those living with them.

Personal Accounts

"I was praying that there was a treatment out there from what I suffered from, and there was, and that day brought excitement but a lot of confusion"-Brandon Marshall, Wide Receiver for the Miami Dolphins, diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder

"Though I had success in my research both when I was mad and when I was not, eventually I felt that my work would be better respected if I thought and acted like a 'normal' person"-John Nash, Nobel Prize Winning Mathematician, diagnosed with Schizophrenia

Clay Marzo, Professional Surfer, diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome

These are just a few accounts of many people living with a wide-variety of emotional disabilities. In all three, you see examples where the individual is performing at an elite level in their profession, however, they are still ostracized to some degree by their community. Until his diagnosis, Brandon Marshall was often talked about as an elite NFL receiver who was unwanted due to his trouble-making habits. He was considered a good player with a bad behavior, someone who would do more harm than good. Upon being identified as having BPD however, perceptions are changing, he is being looked upon as more of a hero, someone who is overcoming and is an underdog of sorts. Moreover, as John Nash described, despite his significant contributions to mathematics and being truly one of the great mathematicians of our time, he feels that being schizophrenic has caused his work to garner less respect from his colleagues. Considering that the man is a Nobel Prize winner and spent a great deal of his professional life teaching and researching at Princeton his work deserves to gain more respect. Lastly, the ESPN documentary on Clay Marzo does a great job at highlighting Clay's achievements as a surfer while also showing the things he goes through out of the water as a person with Asperger's Syndrome. In interviews with Clay's mother, you see how early in his childhood it seemed as though Clay was like every other kid and then things changed, school became almost impossible for him and he began to close off socially. However, because of his disability he has become one of the best surfers in the world today. Even though people with emotional disabilities do face an uphill battle to deal with some things, the majority of them can go on to lead a fairly successful, "normal" lives despite what stereotypes may say.

Classroom Implications

As discussed before, the effect that emotional disabilities have on students in the classroom depends on each individual case and the disability a person has does not always determine how they will do as a student. In looking at the examples from before, both Brandon Marshall and John Nash both graduated from college with Nash making his living in the world of academia. Clay Marzo on the other hand, struggled as a student from elementary school all the way up through high school. Emotional disabilities take on such a wide range of effects on a person's mind, that they will also have a wide range of effects on a person's ability to perform in the classroom. It is very easy to find a case of two people with the same emotional disability who are effected by it in completely different ways as a student. For students diagnosed with an emotional disability it is important to look at their case individually and realize there is no cookie-cutter solution to help them be successfully academically.

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Stereotypes of Studentswith Disabilities
Stereotypes of Studentswith Disabilities