Disabilities and The Unconscious Stigmatization in Our Pop Culture

Picture this: you either identify with a specific category, or you were born into this category. One day, you pass by a group of people, and you overhear someone using this part of your identity to describe either something unfortunate that has happened in their lives or a bad habit/quality they possess.

“She is so bipolar when she’s on her menstrual period”, “Are you disabled?! Kick the ball into the goal!”, “He’s crazy smart, you’d think he’s autistic” are phrases that are incorporated into daily-life conversations so casually and rather thoughtlessly. The first step to resolving an issue is acknowledging it, and this article is to state, and acknowledge, that throwing disability phrases around like metaphors and tenors is a huge issue. Disabilities – whether they were mental or physical – are often a part of people’s identities. Anything that could be defined as a part of identity is a human characteristic that should never be viewed as a negative trait or quality. Just as we are taught that racism is wrong and that humans are not supposed to be viewed differently due to their skin tones, we also need to keep in mind that disabilities are not to be used for means of comparison, when describing something bizarre or peculiar. Using disabilities to describe a bizarre behavior indicates that you view that disability as bizarre, itself.

When we view disabilities as peculiar, we are excluding people with disabilities from our society; we are not treating them with equality – or rather with equity, to be more articulate. Referring to someone as different is also treating them differently, whether that different treatment is conscious or unconscious. This categorization of “us” and “them”, us being the able-bodied and them being the disabled, surely leads to many consequences. One of the biggest implications is the effect this discrimination has on people with disabilities socially, mentally, emotionally, and even financially. This leads to even more social exclusion, as they feel unwelcomed and rather like outsiders.

This issue has been a recurring topic of discussion in a class I have previously been enrolled in, titled ‘Disability’. In a community as diverse as New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), I was shocked to find that, despite the cultural and lifestyle differences, our societies were all similar in the way disabilities are spoken of and perceived. In Korea, the word ‘cripple’ is used by many as an insult or even a joke. In Egypt, people use schizophrenic to make fun of people with ‘contradicting’ thoughts and behaviors, which is in itself a misunderstanding of what schizophrenia is. In our society, we often regard people who prefer their own company over social settings to be of negative mentality or even autistic, especially when it comes to children.

As we became more aware of this prevalent issue, we, the students enrolled in the aforementioned class, decided to work on an artistic project to make people aware of their stigmatizing usage of words like ‘mental’ or ‘bipolar’ or ‘disabled’. I collaborated with four of my classmates and friends, Karima Raafat, Nawal AlJaeedi, Chaerin Lim, and Keshana Ratnasingham, along with Kirk Mariano, a friend of ours who took the role of being the photographer.

The photography series, titled “LAME”, is the photographic documentation of a performative art piece my colleagues and I underwent. Using henna, I wrote terms of physical and intellectual disabilities on my own and my friends’ foreheads, drawing attention to both ourselves and the stigma associated with such terms.

Lame by Kirk Mariano.jpg
Photoseries titled “Lame” by Kirk Mariano

Using henna to write those words instead of removable ink added to our experience of embodying and living with terms that have been so stigmatized by society. We understood better the involuntary commitment people with disabilities have with stigma when we weren’t capable of removing those disability phrases from our bodies whenever we felt uncomfortable.

On our foreheads/bodies, we decided to write four different terms. The first is “متوحدة”, an Arabic term that translates to “autistic girl”. The second is “شيزوفرينيا، انفصام”, along with their translation “schizophrenic”. The third term is “병신”, which is Korean for “cripple”. Lastly, I wrote the word “LAME” on Keshana’s forehead, which was the title of our photography series and one-day exhibit.





Our main objective out of this artistic project was to spread as much awareness as possible through both conversation and photography/documentation. Therefore, the first part of this project was using those terms on our foreheads/bodies as conversation starters between us and other students in NYUAD. We were asked endlessly about the terms on our bodies and why they were there, especially if they were in a foreign language that the passerby did not understand. Once this conversation was initiated, we took it upon ourselves to explain how those disability terms – and many others – were abused and used very negatively in daily conversations and how this is a harmful, stigmatizing habit. As we explained this to the students, we found them responding to the terms on our bodies with other examples of terms they unconsciously used or heard people using, finally bringing it to their conscious.

This performative piece was a way to bring stigma to people’s awareness, and while we did that in conversation, we also achieved that through documentation by taking the photographs, as well as by recording the conversations we had with different students and putting them together in an audio installation. This audio was played on loop in the one-day exhibit to add to the experience of viewing the photographs in a dark, spotlighted room.

If you take it upon yourself to search the definition of lame on Google, the first result would be: “(of a person or animal) unable to walk normally because of an injury or illness affecting the leg or foot.” In the same Google search, the antonym for the word lame is “able-bodied” and synonyms included “disabled”, “crippled”, and “incapacitated”. We titled this project “LAME”, for many people are not aware of what the actual meaning of this word is and the origin of it. One counterargument I constantly receive towards this is that people ‘use the word lame for its other definition, which is dull or uninteresting’. However, the very first definition of the word lame was referent to disabilities. This means that the definitions dull and uninteresting emerged from that first definition, which is problematic.

If you’re still not convinced that the word lame could be, in any way, problematic, then picture this: you are having a conversation with a friend of yours, who happened to have a disability of some sort. She asks you: “how was the (blank)?”. Would you dare respond with the word lame, if you knew that she was fully aware of what the word meant and what it implied?

If saying something could potentially harm someone, mentally or emotionally, then that is enough for it to be problematic. It will potentially harm people with disabilities if we use the word lame, or any disability term, in our conversations to describe something undesired. However, it would not harm us if we simply replaced such terms with what we really mean to say.


This article was first published in SAIL Magazine (sailemagazine.com) in July 2018. 

Photographs by Kirk Mariano

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