I’m A Fighter… But Not How You Think

Fighters. Warriors. Brave. Courageous. Tough. Heroes. Beating the odds. Overcoming obstacles every day.

These are terms frequently ascribed to people with disabilities, sometimes by people who don’t know us at all. Some disability advocates have rejected the trope of the disabled warrior or hero as a form of inspiration porn.While I agree with this sentiment, I also think it’s interesting to dig a little deeper into the concept of the disabled fighter. Is there any grain of truth there; are we fighters?

On the surface, the thought of describing me as a “warrior” makes me laugh. After all, I was the kid who insisted that I “like everybody.” The kid reading a history book and wondering why the white colonists and the Native Americans couldn’t just sign an agreement to split land down the middle, or live together in peace on shared land. I’ve always held peacemaking as a moral priority, and even now with the wisdom of adulthood, I think of most organized warfare like an ill-conceived gamble where the house almost always wins.

Yet I was also the kid who would debate with anyone around over some arbitrary idea until they either admitted I was right, or got me in trouble. (Including a lengthy debate with my sister regarding whether or not it is really possible to “like everybody”.) I was often the first to speak up when I, or someone I cared about, was treated unfairly. And my lifelong role models are nonviolent protesters, like Martin Luther King Jr., and innovators, like Louis Braille.

The stereotype of the disabled warrior often assumes that the disabled person is fighting the disability itself, or obstacles closely related to the disability. We are seen as confronting ordinary circumstances with extraordinary courage. This depiction is incongruent with many of our experiences. Some of us feel overwhelmed by the obstacles of disability, while others of us don’t see them as obstacles at all, and thus don’t see ourselves as bravely overcoming anything. Further, for those of us who feel that our disability is integral to who we are, the disabled-warrior depiction sets up the sense that we are fighting against a part of ourselves,a kind of unhealthy internal conflict. Conversely, accepting negative events or circumstances is key in several evidence-based approaches to mental health, such as mindfulness and acceptance and commitment therapy.

The tension between “fighting” and accepting disability was highlighted when I conducted focus groups with middle-aged adults who have multiple sclerosis (MS) a few years ago. In the focus groups, we asked the participants what “bouncing back” or being resilient means to them. Many of their answers evoked images of accepting, rather than fighting, the condition. One participant described “dancing with” MS. Another said, “It’s like a tire, I’m gonna roll with [MS].” The participants described the value of accepting the condition’s presence, planning ahead, and making adjustments (such as cutting back on work, or moving to a more accessible home). However, these participants also described efforts to stay engaged in life despite limitations. One woman told us she competed in a triathlon while she was still physically able. Another said, “You know what? We only got one life. We’re only here one time. We’ve got to make the best of it, right?” The participants told us of their efforts to continue hobbies, to volunteer, to spend time with grandchildren. They made needed accommodations for their disability but refused to relinquish activities that gave their lives meaning.

In another study, people with chronic pain answered questions about their level of “pain acceptance.” This construct was defined as accepting the experience of pain while also continuing to do things in spite of pain. Participants scored higher in pain acceptance if they agreed with statements such as “I am getting on with the business of living regardless of my pain.” People who scored higher in pain acceptance showed improvements in mood and sleep quality over a three-year period, and although many of them still had significant pain three years later, they reported that the pain interfered less with their daily activities.

Healthy coping with disability involves acceptance, but acceptance does not mean surrender. We can incorporate the disability as a part of ourselves that we tolerate or sometimes even appreciate. But we also engage in an active process of doing what we enjoy, despite limitations. In the process, we fight our internalized doubts and fears. We also fight the barriers, big and small, that others might place before us. Many of us fight for an equal education, full consideration for employment, or the right to participate in fun activities. Contrary to the individualism that the disabled-warrior stereotype conjures, our most successful fighting is done collectively-hence why disabled activists have been dubbed the “hidden army.”

The popular Serenity Prayer reads, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things that I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Perhaps this statement best illustrates the dance between accepting and fighting. As disabled people, we often can’t change the medical facts of our disabilities, so we find serenity when we learn to accept them. But for the things we can change, the social and environmental oppression, we thrive when we merge our collective courage toward challenging the status quo. And, all of us are on a continuing journey of learning “the difference,” knowing when to accept, and when to fight.

On Curing Disability, Part 2

Last week, I discussed some disabled people’s thoughts on curing disabilityImportantly, the word “cure” implies completely eliminating a condition. In practice, many disabilities are incurable, and medicine is often aimed at “treating” disabling conditions. This might involve a drug or an operation to reduce symptoms, slow the progression of a disease, or implant technology to restore function. It is often assumed that some treatment is better than none at all, or that any incremental reduction of disability is worthwhile. But sometimes, incremental treatments can have unintended side effects.

I was born with an incurable eye condition called Lebers congenital amaurosis (LCA). LCA causes loss of the eye cells that transform light into electrical signals our brains interpret as vision. Although the timing and intensity of such loss varies from person to person, I have a severe form of LCA, and was born with no usable vision other than the ability to see lights and some shadows. When I was diagnosed as an infant, it was made clear to my parents that there was no viable treatment. They had no choice but to accept and move forward. I was educated as a blind child, with no question over whether I would read using braille or print, because I can’t see even the largest print letters. I never faced the temptation to hide my disability because doing so convincingly would be extremely difficult. And I was spared the discomfort, convalescence, and risks associated with medical procedures.

Many of my friends and acquaintances who are blind have milder forms of visual impairment than I do. Some can read large print or navigate outdoors without a cane or guide dog. Conventional wisdom suggests that these people are more fortunate than I am, because they can see some things. But most of my blind friends who have some usable vision tell me of problems that I never encountered. They often had to endure multiple medical attempts to save their vision that were usually less successful than hoped. I continually hear stories of kids with “low vision” being taught only visual methods for reading, writing or getting around. When these visual methods become less effective for them, nonvisual alternatives like braille aren’t offered because they are considered not “blind enough” to benefit. Consequently, the kids cannot effectively read in either print or braille. My friends have told me stories of going to elaborate lengths to conceal their disability from others. They describe feeling stuck between two worlds, or like broken sighted people, rather than whole blind people. For many of these individuals, peace and self-acceptance came only when they began to identify with their disability, disclose it to others, and employ adaptations. These stories always made me wonder whether an incremental improvement in visual acuity actually translates into a meaningful improvement in quality of life. What if my friends’ parents and doctors had simply left their eyes alone? They may have lost their remaining vision, along with the social pressure to rely on an unreliable sense. They may have gotten stronger educational supports and found self-acceptance earlier in their lives.

Similar questions plague many parents of deaf children as they contemplate whether or not to give their children cochlear implants. On one hand, a cochlear implant given early in life can give a deaf child some usable hearing during the critical window for language development. On the other hand, this child will still experience a degree of hearing impairment and may struggle with typical spoken communication. Unfortunately, some educators and school systems are reluctant to teach sign language to an implanted child, and if this happens, the child cannot communicate well either orally or manually—in parallel to the literacy problem for kids with low vision. “Low-hearing” People with cochlear implants may also have trouble being welcomed into the Deaf community and reaping the benefits of membership in such a community.

Some research bears out the paradox that more “severe” disabilities can be psychologically easier than “milder” ones. One studyfound that totally blind college students rated their self-esteem higher than college students with low vision, a finding that’s appeared in some of my own research as well. In another study,brain injury survivors with more severe injuries (i.e., experienced longer comas after injury) reported more satisfaction with their lives than survivors with milder injuries. Importantly, the survivors with more severe injuries reported forming more new, positive relationships after injury, and they also had a stronger sense of identification with being a brain injury survivor. Although these survivors may experience more severe disability than the survivors with milder injuries, they benefit from the enhanced sense of identity as well as the new social ties that they developed after the injury.

In sum, this suggests that treatments which make a disability less severe, without removing it altogether, could have unexpected negative consequences for one’s psychosocial life. On the flip side, though, a person with milder disability who does also utilize alternative techniques could experience great benefit. My friends with low vision sometimes talk about how, once they develop skill and confidence using a cane to navigate, they can use their remaining vision to enjoy the scenery around them. By using braille or speech technology for most of their reading and writing needs rather than straining their eyes, they can use their eyes to enjoy watching an action movie or playing a video game. The National Association of the Deaf encourages families who pursue implants for their children to also teach them sign. Such bilingual children can then eventually decide when speech is the best mode of communication, and when sign is more practical for them.

Furthermore, some disabilities cause physical symptoms that, one may argue, are inherently unpleasant regardless of the social environment. Such symptoms might include pain, fatigue, nausea, vertigo or breathing problems. Although people can adjust to these symptoms to a degree, medical interventions that make them less severe or less frequent may be quite desirable.

Medical science has advanced a great deal, and will continue to advance in the coming decades. Some medical interventions can substantially improve quantity and quality of life. But their benefits always need to be weighed against their risks. In the case of a permanent disability, some of the risks are dictated by how the social environment responds to a partially treated disability. Will partial treatment affect a person’s eligibility for special education or vocational support services? Will the person still have access to disability communities? Will side effects from the medical treatment have an impact on the person’s ability to participate in school, work, or social activities in the short and long terms?

These are difficult questions, and they are even more difficult for parents making decisions on behalf of their children. It is critically important that these parents can learn about all the potential impacts of medical treatment, both from medical professionals and from people who have experience with the disability in question. A positive outcome goes beyond medical success, and depends on all parties working together. Service providers, such as school authorities, have a responsibility to support the whole person instead of following a narrow definition of disability. Disability communities also have a responsibility to extend their welcome to all people regardless of their level of disability or their treatment decisions.

On Curing Disability, Part 1

In the medical community and in popular culture, it is often assumed that most disabled people wish to be “cured” or “healed.” Along with this assumption, it is assumed that preventing or curing disabling conditions would benefit society as a whole. Billions of dollars are spent every year on biomedical research intended to identify and remediate the causes of disability, while public health campaigns urge us to take actions (like getting our vision and hearing checked) in the name of preventing disability. Just last week, scientists announced the first successful attempt to perform genetic treatment on human embryos, modifying the embryonic DNA so that they could avoid inheriting a fatal heart condition. This breakthrough renews questions about the benefits and pitfalls of curing genetic disabilities. Is medical treatment the best thing for people with disabilities? For society as a whole?

I first became interested in this topic as a college undergraduate when I was majoring in Biology and Society, a biology degree program that incorporated study of the ethical aspects of emerging biotechnologies. Early in my studies, I noticed that disabled voices were absent from research and policy discussions, or at least from the ones I was reading about. The literature I was reading seemed to start with the assumption that curing disability was always a good thing. As it turns out, views about treatment in the disability community are much more diverse and complicated than that. In this week’s post, I want to discuss some varying opinions about disability prevention and treatment in the “ideal case”-how people feel about the prospect of having their disability completely and cleanly “cured.” Next week, I will talk about the realities of current medical treatments, and the unexpected pitfalls of treatments that only partially work.

At the end of my undergrad program, I surveyed about 300 legally blind adults. I asked them how likely or unlikely they would be to take a “magic pill” that would completely and instantly give them full sight if it were available. Although most of the participants said they would take this pill, about 20% said they would be at least slightly unlikely to take the pill. I found that people who had been blind for most or all of their lives, as well as people who both felt good about their blindness and who felt a strong connection to the blind community, expressed the least interest in the magic pill. When invited to comment, these individuals said things like “I have been blind all my life and it is part of me” or “I think blindness makes me who I am. Why would I want to change that?” These individuals simply didn’t see a compelling reason for treatment. Several participants also noted concerns about the challenges of “going sighted” and learning a whole new skill set. Among the participants who enthusiastically said they would be “very likely” to take the magic pill, reasons included the possibility of being able to drive or read print unassisted.

A partial treatment for deafness, the cochlear implant, already exists and has been on the market for three decades. But it hasn’t received a unanimous embrace from the deaf community. Some deaf adults, and parents of deaf children, have been satisfied with the results. Others, particularly those who identify with Deaf culture (note the capital D used to describe the culture rather than the lack of hearing), worry that widespread cochlear implant use could weaken Deaf culture, particularly by reducing the use of sign languages. Like the minority of blind participants in my study, these Deaf individuals do not see themselves, or Deaf children, as broken or in need of healing. Instead they see themselves and their Deaf brothers and sisters as carrying a proud heritage. In fact, the American Sign Language sign for a cochlear implant is sometimes made to look like the sign for a vampire, with two fingers behind the ear in a stabbing motion-not exactly a sign of appreciation for the technology.
ASL sign for a cochlear implant

In its position statement, the National Association of the Deaf emphasizes that a cochlear implant is “not a cure for deafness,” a comment highlighting its imperfect efficacy. As we will discuss next week, an imperfect treatment can sometimes make things harder than no treatment at all.

As one more example, the neurodiversity movement emphasizes accepting people with neurological differences instead of trying to remove those differences. In a position statement, the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network writes:

The disability rights perspective within the Autistic community is represented in the neurodiversity movement, which promotes social acceptance of neurological difference as part of the broad landscape of human diversity and seeks to bring about a world in which Autistic people enjoy the same access, rights, and opportunities as all other citizens. Acceptance of difference is essential to understanding, accepting, and benefiting from the contributions of everyone.

Importantly, this statement implies that neurodiversity isn’t just “not a bad thing”; it’s actually a strength that can benefit society in an accepting social context.

Clearly, then, there is a range of opinions in the disability community regarding the prospect of “curing” disabilities. Many disabled people support disability prevention efforts. But once they become disabled, the idea of having that condition reversed is one fraught with implications for one’s way of life, one’s identity, and one’s community. In addition, any biomedical treatment can bring up a host of religious, political and philosophical issues; for example, a few participants in my study said that they would be open to a treatment for their blindness, as long as it wasn’t derived from embryonic stem cells, which violated their religious convictions. As treatments become more scientifically feasible, we will all grapple with the risks and benefits of particular treatments to choose what is right for us as individuals.

So, what do I think of all this?

First, I fully support medical treatments that can reduce the physical pain associated with many disabilities, because pain is, by definition, an unpleasant experience. I also support medical treatments for conditions that shorten a person’s life expectancy. And, I support innovations to remove the attitudinal, educational and access barriers that are the real causes of disability for people with physical or mental differences. I would love to see the federal funds, currently being spent on genetic research for my eye condition, instead spent to subsidize training for more qualified braille teachers so that all children who cannot effectively read print can learn braille early in their schooling. I would like to see funds diverted from biomedical research to the increased production of power wheelchairs, removal of architectural barriers, and funding of more sign language interpreters and personal care assistants so that people with disabilities can live and work in their communities.

Biodiversity is what allows any species to thrive under changing conditions. For example, genetic diversity among bacteria enables them to survive an antibiotic apocalypse. When we think of human diversity, we often think of differences in skin tone or facial features. But, ability diversity is perhaps the crudest form of human difference, and I don’t think ability diversity is ever really going to disappear. If something ever happens to our global energy supply, or a long-term eclipse strikes the sun, I can imagine it might help our species to have a few million people who are fully adapted to functioning in darkness. I can imagine that people who know how to communicate smoothly over loud noise, or people whose brains are wired for concrete problem-solving, can be a real asset to our species. As Temple Grandin, an autistic livestock breeder and self-advocate, wrote:

What would happen if the autism gene was eliminated from the gene pool? You would have a bunch of people standing around in a cave, chatting and socializing and not getting anything done.

(Temple Grandin, as cited in Baron-Cohen, p. 491).

In the coming decades, medical science will advance, and these conversations will continue. It is imperative that disability self-advocates are front and center in conversations about treating, curing or preventing disabilities. We have the most to gain, and we also have the most to lose.

Disability Simulations: What Does the Research Say?

When I was in high school and college, I sometimes got invited to speak to younger students about blindness. Sometimes, when I would talk to teachers ahead of time to plan lessons, the teachers wanted to blindfold the kids and have them try to do things without using their sight. This “disability simulation” practice always unsettled me, though I did not know why at the time. Generally I was able to persuade teachers not to do these disability simulations. However, as I got more involved with disability advocacy, a clear tension became evident to me. Many educators thought that disability simulation was an engaging, effective way to teach about disabilities. Yet many disability activists urged caution and argued that these simulations could unwittingly increase misunderstanding. In all of this back-and-forth, though, compelling research evidence was absent.

On this week’s blog post, I want to reprint an article I wrote for the NFB’s Braille Monitor. In it, I outline the results of two research projects I have conducted on disability simulations, along with some complementary research published by my colleague and friend, Dr. Michelle Nario-Redmond. The early research suggests that disability simulations can have an impact, for better or worse, on people’s beliefs about disabilities. The lessons these simulations teach depend critically on how the simulations are done and what kind of emotional impression they leave on participants. A well-organized simulation activity, ideally one planned and executed by people with disabilities, can potentially instill positive beliefs, but the kind of unstructured simulation that is too often implemented can have real negative impacts. It is important to emphasize that this research is just beginning, and there is still much more we need to learn about the best ways to teach disability wisdom.

Disability Simulations: What Does the Research Say?

Disability simulations are one of the most popular activities used to teach about disabilities. They generally involve having people perform everyday activities with a temporary disability, such as a blindfold, earplugs, or a wheelchair. Notably, they are popular with educators, but highly controversial among disability activists, including members of the NFB. As blind people we are deeply concerned about how these simulations affect public attitudes about blindness, for better or worse.

Recently President Mark Riccobono wrote about the possibilities and pitfalls of simulations. He distinguished between simulation-based activities that invoke fear versus activities that give people useful information about alternative techniques and accessibility barriers. He argues that the former kind of learning activity can worsen public attitudes about blindness, while the latter can help improve public understanding. I want to describe some initial research that supports this argument. I also want to emphasize that more research on this topic is badly needed.

In the past I have written about my own research with blindness simulations. In brief, my colleagues and I conducted several experiments in which sighted college students performed simple activities either with or without a blindfold on, depending on the flip of a coin. Minimal instruction in alternative techniques was given. Afterward, they answered questions about how well they thought blind people could perform particular activities and how well they thought they would adjust if they became blind themselves. Consistently, the blindfolded students said they thought blind people couldn’t perform activities as well as the un-blindfolded students. For example, about half of the blindfolded students thought that blind people have trouble “living independently, in their own house or apartment,” but only about a third of the un-blindfolded students expressed this view. Further, when asked how well they would adjust to being blind themselves, the blindfolded students predicted that it would take them longer to adjust and that they would be more limited by blindness compared with the un-blindfolded students. It is clear that the blindness simulation focused attention on the initial hardship of becoming blind rather than the successful adjustment process.

Just this month my colleague Michelle Nario-Redmond published two studies of multi-disability simulations (Nario-Redmond, Gospodinov, & Cobb, 2017). In the first study college students went through stations where they had to read someone’s lips with earplugs in, pick up their lunch in a wheelchair, or read text written backwards (a crude dyslexia simulation). In the second study students read driving directions using low-vision goggles, read them backwards, and then listened to them read aloud with earplugs. Again, no instruction about alternative techniques was offered. Before and after each study, the students reported their moods as well as their comfort level interacting with disabled people. Dr. Nario-Redmond and her colleagues compared the students’ moods and comfort levels before versus after the simulations. They found that after the simulation activities, the students felt more confused, embarrassed, helpless, and (especially after the wheelchair simulation) more anxious than before. They were also more likely to agree with statements like “I am grateful that I don’t have such a burden” (of disability), and “I dread the thought that I could someday end up like them” (disabled people). In the second study, the students also reported feeling less comfortable interacting with disabled people in the future. Thus, the simulations not only made people feel negatively about disability but could also hurt their future interpersonal interactions.

Again, both of these research projects used the traditional type of disability simulation, which thrusts people into disability without any training in alternative techniques or changeable environmental barriers. Such simulations are designed to produce fear and distress to play up the plight of disability. As the above research suggests, they do a good job of that. Perhaps a different kind of learning activity, one that instructs people in useful alternative techniques, could have a different effect.

Recently, I tested this question by designing an activity for occupational and physical therapy students (Silverman et al., 2017). The students learned and successfully performed two activities: first transferring from a chair to a manual wheelchair and wheeling across the room, and then making a sandwich using their non-dominant hand and a variety of assistive aids. We deliberately set up the activities to expose the students to alternative techniques, without being so difficult that novice students would have a hard time completing them. Before and after the activity, we asked the students to rate how happy and healthy people feel who have paraplegia (unable to walk) or hemiplegia (unable to use their dominant hand). After the learning activity, the students thought that people with both disabilities see themselves as happier and healthier, compared with their views before the activity. The brief encounter with effective alternative techniques gave them a more positive sense of what life can be like with a disability.

It is evident that experiential activities need to include a clear teaching component with instruction in specific alternative techniques in order to have positive results. Disability simulation without instruction may intensify people’s preexisting fears and misconceptions about disabilities. But direct instruction, along with exposure to competent blind and other disabled role models, may be an effective way to promote accurate understanding and positive attitudes.

Other types of learning activities, as President Riccobono mentions, warrant further study. For example, President Riccobono suggests that observing a blind person navigating both accessible and inaccessible web content or dealing with custodial attitudes at the airport could be a positive learning experience. This is likely true but warrants further research to determine the most impactful ways of teaching about environmental barriers. Additionally, the long-term effects of disability education activities in general are unclear and deserve further study. Finally, as President Riccobono points out, simulations are often used for fundraising purposes. There is a need to think carefully about alternative fundraising strategies that don’t rely on fear and pity.

In conclusion, there is reason to advise caution when designing learning activities for sighted people that include blindfolds or other simulation equipment. The benefits of such activities may not outweigh the fear, discomfort, and doubt they can instill. Educators should be mindful of the learning objective for any activity and provide appropriate guidance to help reach that objective. In the NFB we know from our collective experience that teaching by example can be a powerful change agent in the minds of the sighted public. Regardless of the equipment used, our leadership in designing lessons about blindness is an important ingredient for their success.


Nario-Redmond, M. R.; Gospodinov, D.; & Cobb, A. (2017, March 13). Crip for a day: The unintended negative consequences of disability simulations. Rehabilitation Psychology. Available online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/rep0000127

Riccobono, M. (2017). Walking a mile: The possibilities and pitfalls of simulations. Available online: https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/bm/bm17/bm1704/bm170402.htm

Silverman, A. M. (2015). The perils of playing blind: Problems with blindness simulation and a better way to teach about blindness. Available online:

Silverman, A. M.; Pitonyak, J. S.; Nelson, I. K.; Matsuda, P.; Kartin, D.; & Molton, I. R. (2017). Instilling positive beliefs about disabilities: Pilot testing a novel experiential learning activity for rehabilitation students. Disability and Rehabilitation. Available online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09638288.2017.1292321

[Reprinted from: Braille Monitor, June 2017 ]

A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Affect Us, and How We Can Rise Above Them

I’m walking home from the bank, along familiar sidewalks. My mind wanders from thoughts of my latest project at work, to the book we’re reading in my book club, to thinking about dinner. It’s my turn to choose the restaurant my husband and I will visit for our weekly date night. Amid my internal debate about whether I feel more like Indian or Chinese food today, I absently round the corner onto my street, a moment too late. My cane misses the street sign and, instead, my head slams into it. I freeze in shock, pressing my fingers on my forehead to extinguish the pain. After a few seconds, the pain subsides, and I keep going.

The physical pain is gone, but a new sequence of thoughts takes hold. I wonder how many people saw me crash into that sign? And what were they thinking? These bystanders had no idea about the paycheck I just put into the bank, no clue about my taste in novels or ethnic cuisine. They only know that I carry a white cane and my eyes dart around. To them, I’m likely just a poor blind lady who ventured out by herself and crashed into a pole. I wouldn’t mind much if they just thought I was a klutz. But the fear that they could blame my accident on blindness cuts to my core. Might my accident confirm their belief that all blind people (or, at least, most of us) are bumbling fools? And, at the root of my worries is a fear that they are right. What if there is something fundamentally wrong with me because I am blind? What if I’ve just been tricking myself into thinking that I have a happy, well-rounded life, when most of society seems set on telling me that my existence is flawed?

As I turn into my driveway, I feel the blood pulsing in my forehead where I bumped it. A welt is forming, a visible mark of shame. I’m relieved to get back home, away from the judgment.

The above scenario is hypothetical, but the thoughts and feelings described are common to many minority groups. It’s a phenomenon known as stereotype threat or, more broadly, “social identity threat.” It’s the fear of being judged based on stereotypes about one’s group—be it one’s race, gender, disability, or other characteristic. The pioneering social psychologist Claude Steeledescribed social identity threat as a “threat in the air” because it can hang over any setting where stereotypes might come into play. It may be felt by visibly disabled people, or by people with invisible disabilities asking for accommodations. It may hang over the female engineering professor who’s the only woman in the department meeting, the African American teenager checking the race box on his SAT, or the low-income person using food stamps at the grocery store. Regardless of the particular identity, social identity threat comprises a series of interrelated worries: Do people think less of me because of their stereotypes? If I mess up on some task, or do something else stereotypical (like getting emotional as a woman), will they judge me even worse? Will my actions or mistakes reflect badly on other people who share my identity (other disabled people, African Americans, etc.)? And, are their stereotypes actually true? Is there something fundamentally wrong with who I am?

Notably, we often aren’t consciously aware of these worries and fears. But, like carbon monoxide poisoning, this “threat in the air” can quietly pull us down.

Social identity threat has a number of negative consequences. The distracting worries it brings can hurt our performance on any kind of situation where we are being evaluated (like a standardized test or a job interview). In fact, research suggests that much of the racial difference in standardized test performance can be linked to social identity threat. The poor performance, in turn, can fuel our fears, leading to a vicious cycle. Another way we might cope with social identity threat is by hiding the identity, if we can. After all, if others don’t know I am blind, they can’t judge me based on that. So, people may choose not to use assistive devices like canes or hearing aids, even if those devices could help them. People with invisible disabilities may not request needed accommodations, or people with low incomes may not ask for financial assistance. Finally, if we have an identity which can’t be hidden, we may just try to avoid the situation by not doing things or going places where we might be stereotyped. The woman may not major in engineering; the African American student may opt for a two-year college that doesn’t require the SAT; and I might get a ride home from the bank, even though I can walk it.

But, there is a positive approach we can take to keep stereotypes and judgments from ruling our lives.

In a separate line of research, Dr. Steele described how humans have a fundamental need for “self-integrity” which he defined as:

a phenomenal experience of the self … as adaptively and morally adequate, that is, competent, good, coherent, unitary, stable, capable of free choice, capable of controlling important outcomes … (Steele, 1988, p. 262).

In other words, we are driven to see ourselves as fundamentally “OK.” Steele theorized that self-integrity is a flexible system. So, when we take a hit in one area, we can preserve our self-integrity by building ourselves up in another area. He called this approach “self-affirmation,” and over the past three decades, researchers have found that simple self-affirmation exercises can reverse the course of social identity threat. The most commonly studied exercise involves having people choose their most important values, such as their friends or family, religious values, having a sense of humor, or being good at art. People then write or talk about why these values are important to them, or specific things they have done to uphold their values. Such exercises can have dramatic benefits for people who are stereotyped; for example, they can boost the grades of minority studentsWhen we think about our values or things we are good at, we may be less bothered by other people’s judgments or stereotypes. We remember that we are fundamentally OK in the end.

It’s important to note that a self-affirmation isn’t just chanting “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough ….” In front of the mirror. In fact, such empty platitudes can backfire. Instead, we can affirm ourselves by reflecting on real, tangible indicators of who we are. For example, before going into an identity-threatening situation or after getting out of one, you might:

  • Think about something nice you’ve done for someone recently.
  • Think of a recent accomplishment you’re proud of.
  • Carry a symbol with you that represents your passions and connections to others. For example: a family picture, a wedding ring, a religious symbol, or button or ribbon from a political group.
  • When you get a written compliment (like a good performance review at work), save it, and review it if you’re feeling down or insecure.
  • Phone a friend. Talk to people who see you positively and love you unconditionally. Processing identity-threatening events with others who share your experiencescan be particularly helpful.
  • Laugh. There’s a reason why TV shows like SNL and John Oliver’s show became more popular among liberal Americans after last year’s election. Humor disarms fear and can counteract physical stress responses.
  • Above all, remember that we can control what we do, even though we can’t control other people’s judgments and stereotypes. We have the power to be the best people we can be.