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

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.

How Stereotype Threat and Impostor Syndrome Intersect

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

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

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.

  • 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.
  • 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.

Blogger, disability advocate, nerd. Bringing the fire on ableism. A11y Architect @ VMware. Wheelchair user w/ a deaf daughter. CS, Law, and Business background

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