Disability and other health challenges have many causes – from accident, to disease, to genetic chance. The result is often a daily test of individual resolve and strength. But along with these solitary struggles, there is one common to all: stigma.

When it happens a hundred plus times a year, you tend to assume…

By Cheryl Gartley

One of my colleagues, a life coach, says if you are going to assume an outcome, then choose the assumption that makes you the happiest. It’s some of the best advice I’ve ever had…I fail miserably at it!

The problem is, when it happens a hundred plus times a year, my personal version of “stranger danger,” I tend to assume it is about to happen again whenever I am using crutches, sporting a visible difference in the form of a leg brace, and a stranger approaches.

A recent case in point: I was leaving “Addicted to Love’s,” an upscale yogurt store whose slogan includes the word “addicted” – which in my case happens to be true. When exiting the store I noticed a woman eating her yogurt in her car parked next to mine. And – predictably I thought – she was exhibiting the usual “fascinated” behavior as she stared at me making my way to my own car. When her door popped open, my mind clicked into its default “stranger danger” alert: here it comes, either a Helpful Hannah who will gush: “Can I help you?” or make some inappropriate comment.

Instead she dropped her empty yogurt cup into the nearby trash bin and then said to me as she headed back to her car, “You have the greatest hair cut I’ve seen in ages.” Well, what a surprise. And guess what? I’m so jaded that as I thanked her for the compliment, I wondered for a moment if she was a therapist who had interpreted my body language correctly, and tossed me this unexpected bouquet.

Shortly thereafter, another assumption bit the dust. It took two in a row to mean the universe is trying to tell me something. An elderly woman came up to my car door just as I’ve parked in a spot that, all right, is questionable on several counts. But it is the nearest to my doctor’s office door and my car very clearly is not in anyone else’s way.

Deciding to be reasonable when she knocks on my window to tell me it is not a legitimate parking place, I smiled and said “I know.” Long wicked pause on my part, before continuing: “I’m in a lot of pain today and on crutches.” Waiting for the more that is not forthcoming, she slowly departs, and I settle in, taking my time finishing my doctor questions list before leaving the car so as not to end up seated next to her in the waiting room.

And would you believe, suddenly here she is knocking on my window AGAIN? Fortunately, before my “stranger danger switch” had me saying something I’d regret, she started speaking. “I don’t know what I was thinking, but I suddenly realized silly me, that woman could use help with the doors getting in. She is probably sitting in the cold car hoping someone will come along to help her.”

(The irony was rolling in like a fog, because now there are two of us with assumptions completely off target!) “And furthermore,” she continues, “I didn’t want you to think I am just a little old lady busy body. (Okay, that part she got right.) The fact is, last month I got a ticket and huge fine for parking in this very spot. I just wanted to warn you.”

With that being said, the two of us slowly made our way into the office, and yes, we did sit side by side, and we had a wonderful chat as we waited.

So my advice to you – sort through your assumptions and pick the one that makes you happiest. And to your great surprise, that may be exactly what will happen.

An effective response to the impact of health stigma is within our reach  

By Cheryl Gartley

We’re experiencing a renaissance of civil rights in this country. A woman ran for president of the United States on a major party ticket. People can marry whomever they choose. The country is caught up in a retelling of the story of our founding fathers – in a hip-hop musical written by a Latino and featuring a colorblind cast.

Major shifts indeed. And we plan to ignite yet another – for people of every age, gender, and life situation. For people who have difficulty walking, seeing, hearing, or comprehending the world around them, and millions more who cope with health conditions, seen and unseen, that redefine their life options. Disability and other health challenges have many causes – from accident, to disease, to genetic chance. The result is often a daily test of individual resolve and strength. But along with these solitary struggles, there is one common to all: stigma.

Health stigma – the judgment of lower worth unconsciously attached to people with physical or behavioral differences – is communicated in many ways. People may stare or awkwardly look away. Or they may avoid an encounter that makes them uncomfortable because they don’t know how to respond or what to say. These may be simple, innocent reactions born of confusion, not lack of compassion. But their impact is deep and lasting.

To those whose health condition already creates a sense of isolation and diminished self-esteem, these stigmatizing experiences are painful affirmations that lead to further separation. Too often, health stigma prompts a choice to live apart from society, in anger or depression, rather than embrace the strategies of coping. Those who are stigmatized begin to stigmatize themselves. This emotional toll has a physical impact as well, often hindering the success of therapy or treatment.

Medical solutions to many disabilities and health conditions may still be distant. But an effective response to the immense emotional and psychological impact of health stigma is within our reach.

Rude2Respect is about creating that change. It’s about bringing the issue of health stigma to light, and helping people with health challenges live with confidence and resilience. It’s also about educating the public on better ways to interact with people with both seen and unseen health conditions.

The launch of the Rude2Respect website and Facebook page is just the beginning, the base of a social media campaign to turn “rude” to “respect.” We’ll be reaching out to the public in search of role models to honor and celebrate. And we’ll be offering resources to people who live with stigmatized health conditions as well as those who want to better understand and support them.

Removing the stigma associated with disability and health challenges is an achievable goal. Join us in making this a success, in turning rude to respect – and eliminating health stigma in our lifetime.