The first CEDAR seminar of 2023 was by Katrina Scior, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Stigma Studies at University College London. Professor Scior’s talk focused on stigma towards people with a learning disability (otherwise referred to as an intellectual disability).
She discussed the many ways in which stigma negatively impacts the lives of people with a learning disability and her team’s important research on how to help people with a learning disability manage and challenge stigma.
What is stigma?
Professor Scior defined stigma as when a person is labelled with something that others perceive negatively and which then leads to discrimination against them. For example, many people might have negative beliefs about individuals with a learning disability and this might contribute to others behaving in discriminatory ways towards them.
How stigma impacts people with a learning disability
Professor Scior highlighted some positive signs of improvement in attitudes towards people with a learning disability in recent years. This includes increased representation of people with a learning disability in the media- for example the CBeebies presenter George Webster, who has Down’s syndrome.
However, she also discussed the many ways that stigma continues to impact the lives of people with a learning disability today. Stigma may lead to hostility towards people with a learning disability, in some circumstances potentially contributing to abuse. Stigmatising attitudes can also cause people with a learning disability to be excluded from work, doing things they enjoy, and accessing the same opportunities and rights as others.
Research suggests that lots of people with a learning disability are aware of stigma towards them, and that this can contribute to people experiencing psychological distress and poorer self-esteem. These negative consequences of stigma show why research on stigma is so vital and why it is important that we all seek to challenge it.
Looking at the whole picture
Stigma is complex and impacts upon people with a learning disability and their families in lots of ways. This includes through impacting the beliefs that people with a learning disability have about themselves, the beliefs that families have about them, the beliefs that other people in society have about them, and also how they are treated by institutions such as the media, government, and law.
Professor Scior argued that it is important that researchers look for ways to address stigma at all of these different levels. She also emphasised the importance of recognising the additional stigma faced by people with a learning disability who are discriminated against in other ways, for example on the basis of their socioeconomic status, race, or gender.
Understanding stigma towards people with a learning disability
Some of Professor Scior’s research has focused on understanding attitudes towards people with a learning disability amongst the public. In one study, they found that members of the public expressed mixed and conflicted attitudes in which they described viewing people with a learning disability as valuable, yet also expressed many stigmatising and exclusionary beliefs.
Another study that Professor Scior was involved in surveyed learning disability experts and organisations across 88 different countries. They found that across the world, many participants believed that the inclusion of people with a learning disability was important, but that there were many practical barriers to this, and that people with a learning disability face widespread stigma and exclusion.
These findings demonstrate that stigma towards people with a learning disability is common across the world and highlight the crucial need for support to address this stigma.
Addressing stigma towards people with a learning disability
To address stigma towards people with a learning disability, Professor Scior argued that support needs to enable people with a learning disability to process accompanying feelings such as shame and embarrassment. Additionally, it must help people with a learning disability to maintain positive self-esteem and equip them to actively challenge and resist stigma around them.
Professor Scior and colleagues have therefore worked on developing a new programme called Standing Up For Myself (STORM). STORM is a group programme for people with a learning disability which is designed to help them to feel good about themselves, say no to bad attitudes and actions, and speak up for themselves. STORM involves four sessions plus a booster session and is designed to be delivered in existing groups who already know each other. Some early research has found that people with a learning disability describe positive experiences of STORM and that a larger study of STORM would be possible in the future to learn whether STORM is effective.
This research is exciting since there currently aren’t other programmes which have been shown to be effective at helping people with a learning disability manage stigma. If it was found to be beneficial in the future, STORM could be made more widely available to people with a learning disability- promoting self-esteem, wellbeing, and confidence in standing up to stigma.
Professor Scior’s seminar was an excellent if stark reminder of how widespread stigma towards people with a learning disability negatively impacts their lives. Her work is advancing our understanding of the impact of this stigma and how we can best support people with a learning disability. At the same time, we can all play a role in challenging stigma towards people with a learning disability and helping people with a learning disability feel valued, respected, and included.
Daniel Sutherland is a PhD student at the Centre for Educational Development, Appraisal, and Research (CEDAR) at the University of Warwick.