This morning, all across Pennsylvania, thousands of thought bubbles appeared with harsh stigmatizing statements such as, “Mentally ill people are dangerous,” “Most ‘disabled’ people are just scamming the system,” and “There’s no such thing as a learning disability—people just need to work harder.” While offensive, volunteers from disability organizations around the state took to the streets and posted the thought bubbles with the objective of drawing attention to statements that are said to people with disabilities on a daily basis. Today, the Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities Council (PADDC) launched the Stigma Project, a statewide campaign to change people’s thinking, behavior and attitudes toward people with disabilities.
“The stigma against people with disabilities is ugly, hurtful and widespread, and it negatively affects the lives of thousands of Pennsylvanians,” Graham Mulholland, Executive Director of PADDC, said. “This campaign strategy, even in the planning stages, has generated much divisiveness, discomfort and hesitation. It’s an issue we don’t like to talk about, but we must in order to initiate real change.”
The campaign, funded through a federal grant awarded to PADDC and administered by the Pennsylvania Mental Health Consumers’ Association (PMHCA), aims to eliminate the stigma against people with all types of disabilities, which has been found to be a serious problem in the state. According to a 2012 survey conducted for PMHCA, 79% of people said they believe society thinks of individuals with physical, mental or intellectual disabilities “with discomfort and awkwardness.” However, most people would say they do not contribute to the stigma surrounding people with disabilities.
According to Lynn Keltz, Executive Director of PMHCA, people do contribute to stigma in ways they don’t even realize. “The challenge here is to get Pennsylvanians’ attention regarding this important topic, have people recognize and be aware of their own stigmatizing thoughts, and educate the public about how they should be thinking and behaving to ultimately promote a more diverse and inclusive Commonwealth.”
The Stigma Project campaign, which asks people “What are you thinking?,” includes a website where visitors can view videos, take a Stigma Quiz, pledge to end stigma and participate in other interactive activities designed to engage and educate. Campaign handouts and bracelets are being disseminated in communities across Pa., while Public Service Announcements will begin airing on radio and television stations. All communications materials lead the public to LetsThinkAgain.org and social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter.
According to Mulholland, the decision to post stigmatizing statements across the state was not an easy one. “As a body dedicated to the interests of people with disabilities, this strategy was thoroughly vetted and carefully considered. However, the Council agreed that we have a responsibility to take the most effective approach to confronting stigma and encouraging real change. Unfortunately, many people with disabilities hear much worse statements than these every day.”
Jeff Parker, 62 years old and a resident of Pittsburgh, has spinal muscular atrophy and uses a wheelchair. He recounts having a passerby push change into a soda he was drinking, while being told by a stranger on another occasion that they couldn’t live with what he has.
“In our movies, our literature, our TV and our news, we still are shown a world where disability at best is something to be pitied and cured, and at worst, a life with a disability is not worth living,” Parker explains. “Being stigmatized can devastate the most important aspects of life from getting the job you need to the housing you desire. Worst of all, stigma isolates people with disabilities from what’s most important to their quality of life—friends and relationships.”
According to Parker, the most important action we can take right now in Pa. is letting people know that stigma is wrong and that stigma hurts. “With this project, we’ve stopped shying away from what people are really thinking and we’re doing something about it,” Parker said. “Stigma stops now!”
“It’s time for Pennsylvanians to stare stigma in the face and realize how offensive and debilitating it is,” Mulholland said. “We all want to be respected. We can achieve this regardless of how we look, move, think, hear and communicate. Differences are not deficits,” he added.