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HeartMind e-News: Teach, Learn, Lead

A monthly publication dedicated to trauma-informed, compassionate school practices that help educators, students, and families move toward a sense of wholeness and well-being



Melanie Tu, CEI Intern

“You just take your time sweetie!” the teacher’s aid told me as she sat me down to take my spelling test, separate from the other third graders because I had accommodations that gave me extra time on tests. The word accommodation, meaning to adapt or adjust to something or someone, is interesting because on the surface-level, it seems polite to the circumstance while it can have more subtle judgment implications on deeper levels.

The Origins of Stigmas Surrounding Disability

In Harlan Hanh’s (1998) The Politics of Physical Difference: Disability and Discrimination, he discusses possible origins to the stigmas around disability. Hanh poses that people feel a certain type of anxiety around those with disabilities because they cannot subconsciously imagine themselves looking (aesthetic anxiety) or having the same deficits and leading a happy, productive life (existential anxiety) in accordance to societal values like personal appearance and individual autonomy (pp. 41-43). These types of anxieties can extend beyond stigmas towards the disabilities community and encompass issues such as racism, sexism, and gender identity. All these categories are deviants from what societally is considered the norm. Thus, discrimination towards people with disability functions similarly to the discrimination towards other minority groups – a way of categorization and self-identification and a way of conforming to societal values.

A Comparison with Racial Stigma

Discriminatory behaviors often look the same across the experiences of different minority groups: We are the object of someone else’s pity or awe because we are different. In Trevor Noah’s (2016) book, Born a Crime, Trevor discusses how he struggled being a mixed-raced child in South Africa, having a Swiss father and African mother. At the time under the reign of Apartheid, Europeans were not allowed by law to bear children with natives. Growing up as the only person with lighter color skin in a dominantly Black community in Soweto, he struggled with how he was perceived. He recounts that sometimes when he was walking on the streets, people would either run away from him or come up to him to examine him – “touch him to see if he was real.” Some people would even allow him to attend funerals even if they didn’t know him, because the mourners felt more blessed if a white person attended the funerals (pp. 53-54). I can personally relate to feeling like the fact I was different for having a disability was the object of someone’s sense of awe or pity. When people first meet me, they might speak more slowly and in a higher-pitched voice because I speak unclearly. Upon hearing I got a degree from UCLA, they express surprise and disbelief.

Both Trevor and I are too seen for what we represent but not seen for who we are. Trevor is seen for the differences in the color of his skin and I am seen for my disability. I am not biracial nor is Trevor disabled, but because we both don't fit the theorem, we are the objects of others' curiosity. That is the root of discrimination; finding an anomaly and trying to fathom why or how it exists in relation to societal values in order to maintain a sense of internal stability.

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Discrimination and Devaluation

The act of discrimination is a two-sided process comprised of the preservation of a self-identity and the devaluation of a symbolic notion of what someone else is perceived to represent. This is a rejection of symbolic notions as opposed to the actual person or group of people because often people know not to be racist, sexist, or in this case, stigmatize disability, but people end up in the psychological trap of discriminating because they need to maintain a stable sense of self.

By discriminating against others, the discriminator essentially makes a self-proclamation to himself of who he thinks he is by deciding to reject a symbolic notion of what someone else represents. For example, during the fall of Apartheid and when Trevor began attending a government school, he was able to find a way to befriend a group of black students even when the school was segregated between white and black kids. The black kids were hesitant to hang out with Trevor at first because his lighter skin made them perceive him as white, but when Trevor spoke to them in their native African languages, they felt comforted knowing he was just like them and let him into the friends circle (Noah, 2016, pp. 56-58).

The African children discriminated against Trevor because they saw him as different from them–meaning that the anomaly Trevor represented helped the other African children solidify who they were and where they belonged. But, when Trevor was able to relate to them, he was able to diffuse the symbolic differences he supposedly represented and fit into the group.

Similarly, people have excluded me at first because they couldn’t understand my unclear speech, but over time, they were able to be more inclusive of me after working with me and exchanging ideas. Thus, discrimination often has a negative connotation for the exclusionary behaviors it comes with, but it often goes unnoticed that discrimination is a way of reinforcing identity.

How K-12 Educators Can Help Curb Discrimination

K-12 educators can possibly curb students' inclination to discriminate by providing them opportunities to explore and define their own identities through healthier ways, such as self-expression. In her Health Guide article, Ellyn Vohnoutka (2022) describes the positive effects of journaling, including anxiety reduction, stress management, and improved problem-solving skills. As a writer myself, I can see how writing my thoughts out is helpful in the process of organizing my thoughts because it allows me to visualize my mind in a way my mind cannot do onto itself.

Thus, if educators gave their students more opportunities to write about themselves, about their experiences, and about others, they’d be training their skills in organizing thoughts, which could lead to more self-awareness and aid in emotion regulation. As a more positive and productive way to define oneself and realize our universal humanness, all while also better understanding oneself, journaling can be a beneficial activity for individuals all around.


Vohnoutka, B. (2022, June). Journaling for mental health: Benefits, how to start. Ro Health Guide.

Hahn, H. (1988). The politics of physical differences: Disability and discrimination. Journal of Social Issues, 44, 39-47.

Noah, T. (2016). Chapter 4: Chameleon. Born a Crime. Random House.