I recently delivered a bespoke training session for an organisation in Reading. As part of their equality objectives, they had identified some issues surrounding stereotyping so I was asked to focus on this specific area, addressing the causes of stereotyping and its impact.
So what causes individuals and society to refer to people using negative stereotypes?
With regard to individuals, a person’s upbringing, their community, fear of the unknown and simply ignorance can all impact upon their personal stereotypes. Most of these factors are beyond an individual’s control or conscientious , hence the need for Equality Training so that attitudes and approaches can be examined and reviewed in a safe and non judgemental environment.
In relation to society as a whole, I believe that one of the biggest causes of stereotypes is the media. Whether people are conscience of it or not, the media has a huge impact on how we view certain people or groups of people in our society. The words “black”, “disabled”, “muslim” (to name just a few) are regularly dropped into headlines when they bear absolutely no relevance to the actual story. By including such irrelevant descriptions serves only one purpose which is to fuel stereotypes.
However, I’ve recently been forced to re examine my own negative stereotype of the media as a negative influence. I have to admit that one of my favourite past times is watching the British Soaps and over the years, they have dealt with many issues of diversity. They haven’t always done so sensitively but nonetheless, they have opened up subjects which were previously taboo and at least, got people talking about and debating the issues. Disabled characters have always featured in the soaps but many of the storylines have been negative, doing very little to change the negative stereotypes which surround disabled people.
I am currently closely following the story of Izzy in Coronation Street. (Played by Cherylee Houston) Izzy has a long term physical disability and has recently discovered that she is expecting a baby with her partner, Gary. They are both thrilled by the news, having been reassured by a doctor that her condition will not affect the pregnancy. However, her father’s reaction to the news is one of shock, disappointment and fear. Her father, played by Ian Puleston-Davies, worries about the emotional and physical demands of pregnancy and motherhood will have on Izzy.
Having spoken to several disabled people (some of them parents), this is quite a common reaction. People see a disabled person with a child and automatically assume that it can’t be theirs or that the pregnancy wasn’t planned. The disabled parents that I’ve spoken to say that this couldn’t be further from the truth. They are very conscious of the possible implications of pregnancy and parenthood and the decision to have a child is made after careful consideration and in many cases, after seeking medical opinion. Therefore, the assumptions that people make are all the more hurtful and patronising.
There was also a recent documentary on BBC called “We won’t drop the baby”. It focused on a couple, both with cerebral palsy, who already had a young son and were expecting their second baby. It was a brilliant documentary which showed that despite obvious difficulties, it is possible for disabled people to be good parents. The documentary featured the couple’s parents who naturally expressed some anxiety and concern. But despite this, they stood in the background and like with everything else their children had achieved, they let them learn how to do things their way and it was obvious that the children were well looked after.
I think such programmes, whether real or fictional, do a lot to challenge stereotypes. So is the media a help or a hindrance in challenging the negative stereotypes that still exist in society? I think the jury is still out on that debate but I like to think that the media is doing a lot more to break down prejudices and make people question their assumptions. Like I said, as human beings, I don’t think we are always conscience of or to blame for our own stereotypes. But we are responsible for realising that we have them and for challenging them regularly.
I obviously don’t know how Izzy’s storyline will pan out but I congratulate Cherylee and Ian on their performances and hope that the storyline will continue to make people question the stereotypes surrounding disabled people.