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Stereotypes and Stigma

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) writes policies to help people understand what types of discrimination are. In addition, these policies outline how to prevent and respond to instances of discrimination. According to the OHRC’s Policy on Ableism and Discrimination based on disability, discrimination happens through ableism, stereotypes and stigma. In other words, discrimination happens when people have negative attitudes about what it is like to have a disability.

Stereotypes and Stigma

Stereotyping means making assumptions about people based on broad statements or ideas about the groups that those people belong to. For example, some common stereotypes are that people with disabilities:

  • Cannot understand, and must communicate through a support person
  • Always need help with every-day tasks
  • Depend on support in every part of their lives

However, these ideas are generalizations. While some people with disabilities communicate through support persons and need assistance with every-day tasks, others do not. Nonetheless, many people assume that they should not speak directly to someone with a disability. Instead, these people who stereotype expect other people to speak for the person with the disability.

Furthermore, when people do need support, they can still be independent, productive people. For example, a worker who is deaf may use a Sign language interpreter or captioning at work. However, this worker uses these supports to fulfill all the responsibilities of their job. Likewise, someone may need support to meet their daily living needs. However, this person may be raising a family and have a thriving social life.

Other Stereotypes

In addition, people can believe stereotypes about people with specific disabilities. For instance, people may think that all blind people are musical, because they have better hearing. This stereotype may lead people to think that blind people should work in specific jobs, such as musicians or piano tuners. However, ideas like this are also generalizations. While some blind people are musically gifted, others are not. Instead, blind people, like sighted people, have many talents and can work in a variety of fields, including:

  • Banking
  • Broadcasting
  • Computer programming
  • Customer service
  • Healthcare
  • Teaching
  • Writing

Likewise, people may believe that invisible disabilities impact people’s lives less than visible ones. For example, someone might think that a person who looks non-disabled should not have an accessible parking pass. People who make this false assumption are unaware that this person could have a medical condition that limits how far they can walk. Therefore, this person does require the accessible parking permit, as much as someone whose disability is visible.

This stereotype also fosters the view that people with disabilities receive services and supports that they do not really need. Moreover, this thinking can lead people who stereotype to resent people with disabilities. These people may come to believe the ableist idea that people with disabilities are worth less than people with disabilities.


Stigma happens when people make distinctions based on people’s traits or characteristics. For example, people might think that it is “normal” to walk. As a result, they may view people who walk differently, or do not walk, as different in a negative way. Likewise, they may view people with mental health disabilities as different, in a negative way, from non-disabled people. When people stigmatize differences, they are less able to interact comfortably with people who are different. Moreover, when people perceive difference only as a problem, they fail to recognize the strengths that people who are different have.

For instance, a landlord could stigmatize a person with a communication disability, and prefer not to rent to them. This landlord may imagine that speaking to and understanding this prospective tenant would be difficult. However, this tenant may communicate easily with others in many ways, including:

  • Speaking slowly and repeating themselves when needed
  • Texting
  • A communication board or other alternative communication device

In contrast, people who do not stigmatize others can get to know them as equals, as friends or colleagues.