“The whole idea of a stereotype is to simplify. Instead of going through the problem of all this great diversity – that it’s this or maybe that – you have just one large statement; it is this.” – Chinua Achebe
I have spend the better part of my adult life fighting stereotypes and continue to this day. To often stereotypes are based on first impressions and grow from there. As a person in a wheelchair I already know when I enter a room the first thing people recognize is the “wheelchair”. It then becomes my responsibility to work them past that and recognize me as the person in the chair, that I am not the “chair”. I have been doing that for so long it is just second nature to me. There has always been a stigma attached to a disability which leads to stereotyping.
Growing up in a children’s hospital, in its own way, sheltered me from stigma. We all had disabilities and we didn’t have a ranking system so one wasn’t worse or better than another. That sheltered me from being stereotyped. We were a family and we had continual activities provided by well meaning people. Monday’s were arts and crafts provided by the forerunners of the new profession of the occupational therapy. Tuesday’s was guides/brownies and the boys had that one night to just veg out with the on TV, games or reading. Laid back.
Thursday’s was the girls night off while the boys attended scouts/cubs. Wednesday’s was the nigh that a cross section of religions would come in to sing hymn’s or do readings from a cross section of faith. Church service (Catholic or Protestant) were always held on Sunday morning so I had a good cross section of exposure to many religions. We saw little examples of stereotyping because we were the audience and all of these activities were being conducted by well meaning people.
The stereotyping didn’t really start to impact me until I left the commonality of the hospital. It was when I started my voyage as a contributing member of the community that I started to recognize “stereotyping” hidden behind the stigma of the word “disabled”. Having grown up with my condition I never saw myself disabled, I just saw it as normal. Disability was a stereotypical condition imposed on me by a society that couldn’t see past the concept of “normalcy”. It wasn’t until my body began to fail me restricting me to a wheelchair that I began to understand the stereotype.
I had a very good friend by this past weekend and we had an excellent Saturday evening visit. He is one of those rare friends that is such a privilege to have. One of the topics we discussed was the young girl who reportedly had someone try to cut her niqab off her face. Of course that has now proven to be a false story with a system to quick to jump on it however for my purposes that’s irrelevant now.
The issue in our conversation was my buddies belief that facial coverings should be banned. His expressed fear was the “slippery slope” that could bring Sharia law into Canada. I don’t share those fears but I do share his sentiment that people immigrating or living in Canada live by the laws of this country. We are the envy of the world for our diversity in culture but that shouldn’t mean trading away “laws”. We can maintain our laws without giving up cultural diversity.
The great thing about a close and open minded friend is that it is not about getting either to adopt the others philosophy but more importantly to respect the differing of opinions. We know each other well enough and have found ourselves here before were we move onto the next topic of discussion. There was no verbal agreement to agree to disagree, we just know internally that it was time to move onto the next topic. One trait that defines a close friendship is the unspoken ability to be accepting of the other persons beliefs rather than demanding they accept your perspective. That kind of acceptance is about avoiding stereotypes by understanding stigma.
To me wearing a niqab speaks to culture, not religion. Sharia law is about religion, not culture. Canada may be a multicultural country but we shouldn’t be adopting legal processes that are counter-productive to our own culture. That “slippery slope” my buddy spoke of is already here and it is manifesting itself in issues like “faith based hospitals” refusing the newly adopted Canadian laws around dying with dignity. Tax dollars should go to the healthcare guaranteed to all and not some ideology that is acceptable where it should be, a persons place of worship.
I do my best not stereotype individuals or cultures based on the stigma created by the most extreme of those sectors. Despite the residential schools I don’t brand every priest a pedophile. I don’t paint every Mormon with the same brush because of the activities of Winston Blackmore in Bountiful. Again there is a particular stigma attached to that type of stereotyping.
So ask yourself, are you responding to a stereotype or a stigma? In closing I would like to highlight that the opening quote was from Chinua Achebe, an author and scholar from Nigeria, a country recently stereotyped by the President of the United States…