Watch Out for Stereotypes

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Jeremy Lin, a point guard with the New York Knicks, has been in the news, both because he has been playing very well lately (helping the Knicks win seven games in a row), and because he is an Asian-American playing in a sport dominated by African-Americans. Thanks to his fine playing, people are taking notice of him, and with that extra attention some commentators have engaged in stereotyping resulting in racial jokes and slurs about Lin's Asian heritage.

"Stereotypes are not innocent or easily ignorable," according to Dr. Claude Steele, dean of education at Stanford University and former provost of Columbia University. "They create pressures on people to see others in those stereotypes and degrade the quality of life for people who are stereotyped."

Just as racial stereotypes degrade the quality of life for people of various ethnicities, so stereotypes make life more difficult for people with disabilities. A few examples:

At an upcoming TEDx event being hosted near my home town, Chris Klein, who lives with a form of cerebral palsy that prevents him from walking or speaking, will be one of the featured presenters. He uses his toe to type his speeches into a computer that has a voice synthesizer. I know Chris personally. He has a wonderful sense of humor, and good insight into human nature and Scripture. He has preached at before at the church where my family and I are members. Talking about stereotypes, Chris said, "When you have a disability, people don't usually see past the disability to the person that you are. When your communication is effected, people just assume that you are not all there, so they don't give you the time."

I talked one time with a college professor who said with regret that his department did not hire one of their own graduates to teach a course that she was qualified to teach. He told me that they just could not imagine how she could have taught the class considering that her disability prevents her from speaking. He commented that her abilities in her discipline were excellent. I wondered why they assumed that a professor has to speak in order to teach. My wife completed a Masters degree in special education online. She did not speak with any of her professors for the courses she took; all courses were conducted online, an environment in which this young woman could have interacted with students.

As one more example, in a previous blog, I wrote, "People with disabilities experience inequalities – for example, when they are denied equal access to health care, employment, education, or political participation because of their disability." An anonymous blogger responded, "I read the first one and thought, 'Well, they are, uh, disabled. Somebody with no arms is going to have a hard time getting a job as a stock-boy or a typist.'" This blogger's stereotype is that people with disabilities must function as "stock-boys" or "typists." A person with no arms might well be able to function as a doctor, a consultant, or the CEO of a corporation.

Stereotypes infect the church too. We make assumptions about people based on external factors, and prejudge what people can and cannot do. When we encourage people to discover their gifts and exercise their responsibilities as church members, we can't decide for God how he plans to use an individual in the life of the congregation. We need to encourage each person to exercise his or her God-given gifts so that body of Christ will be built up.

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You make a great point about how in subtle ways we in the church "decide for God" regarding who is capable of doing what — without getting to know them as people or ever bothering to explore their areas of giftedness, passion, or sense of call. I know that unwittingly I have made that very mistake many times.

Thanks for the excellent post, Mark, and for the reminder not to succumb to stereotypes of any kind.

A show on TLC that I love is The Little Couple, about a married couple who happen to be Little People. The wife is a successful neonatal doctor, and they do a good job of showing her going about her daily work with the accommodations she needs--but also showing that she is an accomplished professional. In a way, she uses her short stature as a benefit, since she works with newborns. 

As always, great reminder! 

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Update on Jeremy Lin: concerned about the degree and ways in which Jeremy Lin and Asians in general have been stereotyped with his recent notoriety, the Asian American Journalists Association has released guidelines for coverage. In addition, according to Fox News, an ESPN writer was fired and a commentator suspended for 30 days for using a particular racial slur about Lin. I suspect other writers and commentators will sit up and take notice, and a good thing too. The language we use about other people is not about being "politically correct," but about respect. As this is true for people of various ethnic backgrounds, so it is true of people with disabilities.

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