Impostor Syndrome, Stereotype Threat and Disabilities

Stereotype threat is as big of an issue (if not bigger) as impostor syndrome for people with disabilities and other underrepresented minorities

line drawing of angry person dragging heavy ball by the chain attached to his leg
line drawing of angry person dragging heavy ball by the chain attached to his leg

Haven’t heard of “Stereotype Threat” before? Me neither until a few weeks ago. The impact of understanding how stereotype threat shapes my actions on a regular basis has fundamentally changed my life.

What is Stereotype threat?

Stereotype threat is where people feel themselves to be at risk of conforming to stereotypes about groups that they identify as belonging to. The term was originally coined by Claude Steele & Joshua Aronson in their 1995 article Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Stereotype threat is considered a contributing factor to long-standing racial and gender gaps in academic performance. Stereotype threat is also well documented among people with both visible and invisible disabilities.

How Stereotype Threat and Impostor Syndrome Intersect

Stereotype threat and impostor syndrome negatively feed off of each other.

Impostor Syndrome — Some thoughts associated with impostor syndrome:

  • I shouldn’t be here
  • I don’t have the qualifications
  • There are people out there better at this than me

Stereotype Threat — Some thoughts associated with stereotype threat:

  • S**t. I’m here (or I’m getting there real soon and there is nothing stopping that)
  • If I screw this up, that will look badly on all <fill in the underrepresented minority here>
  • <underrepresented minorities> are never successful at <activity> because of <stereotype>: Ex: People with disabilities are terrible at sports because they are all klutzes.

and then loop back to impostor syndrome.

Here is the best, most relatable quote I’ve ever seen on impostor syndrome.

The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something and that any moment now they will discover you — Neil Gaiman

I know about impostor syndrome. I don’t know any women in tech who haven’t heard of it or experienced it. But it wasn’t until I heard about stereotype threat on Debbie Levitt’s podcast that I realized that I have not yet been able to permanently overcome my issues with impostor syndrome because I wasn’t acknowledging and owning the component attributable to stereotype threat.

Here are some examples of how I have personally experienced stereotype threat related directly to my disabilities:

  • ALWAYS working — the stereotype is that people with disabilities are unreliable and don’t accomplish as much as people without disabilities. Unless I am in the emergency room (and sometimes even then), if it is during the business day, I am working. If I take time off during the day, especially for medical things, I make it up at night. Or on the weekend. I worked in the ER while getting a cast on my foot. Twenty-eight years ago, I negotiated a contract while I was in labor with my second child. Three years ago, I worked in infectious isolation while recovering from Type B Influenza. I may be working from home when I am sick, but I am definitely working.
  • Avoiding travel with co-workers — the stereotype is that people with disabilities can’t do things for themselves. I don’t want my co-workers to see how much help I need while traveling, or make them feel forced to assist me. This is going to be an upcoming adventure as VMware Chief People Officer Betsy Sutter recently invited me to accompany her on her next trip to India. Which is NOT a great place to try and get around in a wheelchair. But she wants to see all of that, and I’m the one that is best suited to show her that experience, first hand.
  • Trying to work around issues rather than asking for reasonable accommodations. The stereotype is people with disabilities are always seeking “special treatment”. For me, this stereotype threat literally goes back to my childhood, prior to the passage of the ADA. Asking for help in school rarely resulted in progress, so I stopped asking. In the work setting, I do complain a fair amount about environmental inaccessibility. Usually for others, but occasionally for myself. But, you can rest assured that before I complain, I have done everything in my power to try and work around the issue myself. What I’m asking for isn’t special treatment, it’s equity.

Stereotype threat is one of the reasons inspiration porn is so insidiously evil. Because if “Joe Disabled” can climb a mountain despite being paralyzed, why shouldn’t I be able to reach the coffee can on the really high shelf in the employee break room? After a year of begging, I ended up having to file a reasonable accommodation request to get that changed.

The “coffee can in the breakroom” example is the epitome of the dichotomy of models of disability. In the “medical/charitable” models of disability, the coffee can response is “why don’t you just ask someone to help you” (charitable) or “why don’t you walk with your cane / get one of those chairs that helps you stand (medical). I firmly live in the land of the third model of disability: the social model. The source of my disability is not that I use a wheelchair. The source of my problem is that our facilities department utterly failed to consider (and reconsider when pointed out) that placement of objects above 48" in height was discriminatory.

Ask yourself (and answer HONESTLY) how many times you have thought to yourself when presented with a problem facing someone else “why didn’t they just ask for help, that’s so easy”

Now think about it from the other person’s side of the equation.

  • How often is this person forced to ask for help through others’ inactions or disinterest?
  • Now add that up per day, per week, per year, per decade. Even a number as low as 3X per day adds up to 1000 times per year.
  • Stop counting when you start getting uncomfortable with the number. My average day is 20, and I’ve had days where I have stopped counting at 60, which works out to 20K times per year. Even a low lifetime number for me would be somewhere around 350,000. And it gets tiring. Believe me.
  • Then ask yourself the question — what is it that might BLOCK that person with a disability from wanting to ask for help? Could it be they don’t want to deal with rejection, they don’t want to be a bother, or they don’t want to feed into some stereotype belonging to an under represented minority that they belong to? Not all URMs are visible — it’s not all about wheelchairs and the color of your skin.

Finally, rephrase the problem. Ask yourself what YOU can do so that person is not forced to ask for help next time. That is the best thing you can do for a person with a disability, ever. Then you are truly living in the social model of disability, and removing barriers that might otherwise trigger unconscious stereotype threat reactions in your coworkers and customers with disabilities.

Written by

Accessibility Architect @ VMware. W3C Silver, ITI & IAAP GLC committees. Degrees in CS, law, business. Wheelchair user w/ a deaf daughter.

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