The two articles this week did an excellent job of discussing social stigmas a disabled or diseased person encounters from the rest of society. I hesitate while even describing these people as “disabled” or “diseased” because even these casual descriptions are loaded with stigma, from which the people described by these words work hard to disprove.
Robert Murphy’s article, “The Damaged Self,” is an autobiographical account of a quadriplegic whose life is changed after a spinal tumor leaves most of his body paralyzed. Murphy mentions many examples of how society reacted negatively to his condition, which makes me sad and angry, since I have sometimes reacted in similar manners. Since childhood, most of us fear what is not perceived as “normal” or “other” as Murphy uses to describe disabled people. I never realized that simple gestures such as avoiding eye-contact with a disabled person was indeed noticed, and in fact had the effect of separating the gap between “normal” and “other.” This lack of eye-contact is often justified as a sign of respect towards the disabled, since one does not want to stare and make the other feel uncomfortable, but in reality, we do not stare because it makes us uncomfortable. The article mentions undesired dependence on others which further weakens self-esteen, and awkward social situations caused by a disability, such as going to a cocktail party in a wheel-chair.
This reminded me of the time I met a boy at precisely this kind of “stand-up” party. After he was done talking in a circle of standing men, he went of to the corner, as if to observe the rest of the party. He did not seem happy, so I decided to try to talk to him. As approaching him, I was quickly deciding whether to crouch down to talk to him, or to stay standing, either of which gestures could be taken offensively. I decided to bend down, to try to make clear that we were equals, but even my action in doing so is a bit ironic, because why did I feel the need to clarify this equality?
The second article looks at the strong stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS infection in China. Many people do not seek treatment or practice safe sex practices because they are ashamed of what the rest of the community to think. This universal mentality of caring more about what other people thing than what is personally beneficial, is somewhat of a disease in itself, in which individuals are paralyzed by social stigma. People in China infected with HIV/AIDS, which is seen as a “dirty” disease, are often isolated and treated as highly contagious. Although education about the disease should be able to clarify these notions, the negative cultural stigma surrounding the disease is so strong, people infected with the disease would still be seen as “other.” However this is true of any nation, since even in our country, people with HIV/AIDS are subconsciously thought of as “different.” These two articles really made me think about the way society reacts to disabled and diseased people and its implications on human nature community values. The way we separate people based on physical qualities is what makes it easy for people to turn a blind eye when one of these groups is taken advantage of, such as in extreme cases of genocide. The only way people can find discrimination or genocide acceptable, is if they truly believe in this “otherness,” which from a biological viewpoint is completely idiosyncratic.
For more information about HIV/AIDS in China: http://www.avert.org/aidschina.htm