Stigma is a sign one is given to wear. Shame is an emotion one is made to feel. For people labelled as ‘disabled’ these two qualities tend to go together.
To feel shame is to experience oneself as a bad or inferior person. It is experienced privately but it is constituted by internalized public perceptions of the stigmatized person, i.e., by the action of ‘shaming’. Those who impose shame on others elevate their feelings about themselves (pridefulness).
For the stigmatized and shamed, this is a dangerous business. To shame is to shun, to marginalize. For social animals marginalization increases the chances of suffering illness, injury and death because it loosens or severs the limbic connections that keep us healthy and well. For example, horses are punished, by the lead mare, by being cast out to the perimeter of the herd. This is as true for humans as it is for horses.
It’s not just the disabled who suffer, of course. The poor are stigmatized and shamed too; more so in some countries than others. In both cases, the disabled and the poor are made to feel responsible for their own condition. ‘They brought it upon themselves’.
The big question, of course, is what to do about it, how to free oneself of stigma and shame? Jody McIntyre, featured in the video above, confined to a wheelchair by cerebral palsy, is a living example of how this might be done.
In December 2012, while participating in a demonstration against the public spending cuts in England, he was forcibly removed from his wheelchair by police—to great public consternation. He was then subjected to a particularly hostile interview by the BBC, but handled himself very well. He deals with the stigma of being ‘disabled’ by refusing it. It takes enormous courage to do that.
The BBC interview lasts for 8 minutes but is well worth watching for what it reveals about stigma—and the BBC.