As a person with a disability, I have encountered various challenges in my life. While I can see signs that our societies are gradually becoming more inclusive and accepting, there are still instances where discrimination raises its ugly head. One such form of discrimination that many of us face is discrimination by association. In this blog post, I will share some reflections on the reasons for why this kind of discrimination exists, how this affects people with disabilities, and some suggestions for measures to change these injustices.
A vivid memory of discrimination by association is etched in my mind, and I have still not processed the uneasiness and feelings of humiliation the incident caused. Not long ago, I was out with a close friend who does not have a disability. We were enjoying each other's company and the activities around
us, oblivious to the judgmental stares that passing strangers might send in our direction. But as the day progressed, I noticed some individuals treating my friend differently when they realized that we were together. It was evident that she was experiencing discrimination based solely on her association with me. Witnessing her discomfort and the unfair treatment she received was distressing and reminded me of the pervasive nature of discrimination.
The UK Equality Act of 2010 defines d
iscrimination by perception as the act of discriminating against someone because others perceive them to have a particular characteristic that is protected under the Act, such as disability, race or religion. On the other hand, discrimination by association refers to treating someone unfairly because of their connection or association with a person with protected characteristic, such as disability. This could be a friend, family member, or even a colleague. For people with disabilities, discrimination by association creates a unique set of challenges that not only affects us directly but also impacts our loved ones who share our lives. Discrimination by association amplifies the feelings of vulnerability and isolation that people with disabilities often experience, as it reinforces the idea t
hat having a disability is somehow a negative trait that warrants mistreatment.
Disability as a unique target of discrimination
Taking a step back and inspecting disability as a cultural, societal and political phenomenon can shed some light on the isolation discrimination causes to people with disabilities. All other social identities intersect with disability (e.g., gender, race, sexual orientation), meaning that social identities of dis
abled people are often multifaceted, and also that disabled people may experience multiple forms of discrimination. Disability is unique as one of the only minority groups one could either be born into or could join at any time (Bogart, Rosa, & Slepian, 2019). Unlike racial and ethnic identities, people with disabilities often have solo status (Lord & Saenz, 1985), meaning they may be the only member of their family or community who shares that identity, challenging the formation of ingroup identity. The so far dominant medical model in Western societies, presents disability as an individual pathology, abnormality, or difference from a standardized norm (Olkin & Pledger, 2003). This model presents disability as a problem of the i
ndividual or the individual's family—a problem to be dealt with by a small number of specialized individuals (i.e., doctors, special educators). Thus, discrimination of people with disabilities is apparent even from the conceptualisation of disability itself and is constructed by a society that is inaccessible to and biased towards people with certain bodies and minds. Therefore, discrimination by association has far-reaching consequences on the lives of people with disabilities and their social circles. It fosters a culture of fear and hesitation, le
ading many to hide their relationships to avoid negative repercussions. This hidden struggle deprives individuals of the joy of open, genuine relationships and denies them the opportunity to be authentically themselves. Moreover, it creates a barrier to social inclusion, perpetuating a cycle of exclusion and stigmatization. As a result, many people with disabilities and their loved ones find it challenging to fully participate in community events, education, and the workforce.
For instance, mixed-ability marriages often face additional challenges due to discrimination by association as society may view the non-disabled partner as a caregiver or assume they are sacrificing their life for their spouse. Such attitudes undermine the autonomy and agency of both partners, perpetuating stereotypes about disability and reinforcing the notion that a person with a disability is a
burden. Furthermore, parents of children with disabilities can encounter condescending attitudes or misplaced sympathy, which marginalizes their experiences. Siblings may also be affected, as they might face discrimination or be misunderstood by others due to their association with their disabled brother or sister.
The impact of discrimination via association has also been portrayed in the experiences of children of persons with disabilities, as they can experience discrimination by association in various aspects of their lives. They may face social exclusion or teasing from peers, who may believe that having a disabled parent somehow reflects negatively on them. This can lead to feelings of shame, isolation, and frustration, affecting their emotional well-being and self-esteem, as the discrimination their
parental figures experience echoes through the child’s life.
Another area that discrimination by association extends its reach into is the employment sector. Some employers may worry that hiring or promoting someone with a disabled family member will negatively impact the company's productivity and image. This perception stems from the persistent societal bias that associates disability with incompetence, hindering opportunities for both individuals with disabilities and their loved ones.
So where could we locate the connection b
etween disability and discrimination?
Discrimination by association, as experienced by people with disabilities and their loved ones, is a complex issue deeply intertwined with various societal, cultural, and economic factors. Touching upon the root causes associated with it can unveil an in-depth understanding of the ways in which discrimination has been structurally supported within our societies and thus hopefully inspire more nuanced tools to combat it. Within disability studies scholarship, disability is conceptualised as a social, cultural and political phenomenon where ableism is highlighted as one of the central characteristics of discrimination. Fiona Kumari Campbell's (2001) definition focuses on ableism’s dehumanizing role:
“Ableism refers to a network of beliefs, processes and practices that produces a particular kind of self and body (the corporeal standard) that is projected as the perfect, species-typical and therefore essential and fully human. Disability then is cast as a diminished state of being human. (p. 44)”
The deeper structures behind discrimination by association
Society often perceives disability as a negative trait, reinforcing stigmas that perpetuate exclusion and marginalization. Such
prejudices are deeply ingrained in cultural norms, media representation, and historical attitudes towards disability that follow the medical model of defining disability. Furthermore, discrimination by association can be fuelled by the fear of economic insecurity and the desire to belong to high-status groups. In a competitive job market, employers may worry that hiring individuals with disabilities or their loved ones could be seen as a liability or affect the company's image, leading to economic repercussions. This fear creates a barrier to inclusion and prevents many people with disabilities and their families from accessing opportunities commensurate with their abilities and qualifications.
In addition to that, misconceptions about disabilities and their impact on a person's capabilities persist not only within one’s professional environment but also within their personal life. Many individuals hold inaccurate assumptions that people with disabilities are dependent, less competent, or unable to
contribute meaningfully to various aspects of life. These stereotypes contribute to the discrimination faced by both individuals with disabilities and their families and social circles. Such misconceptions clash heavily with many societal norms and expectations about family structures and relationships. These norms, such as that of the “nuclear” family, dictate certain roles or responsibilities based on perceived ability, which can impact the experiences and choices of individuals in mixed-ability marriages or families with disabilities.
At this point, it is important to underline the role of representation in the workforce and in the media, or the lack thereof, which fuels such misconceptions on a much wider scale. The underrepresentation of people with disabilities and their loved ones in influential positions perpetuates the invisibility of their experiences and perspectives. When individuals with disabilities are not visible in high-status roles, it reinforces the idea that they are incapable of achieving such positions, creatin
g a self-fulfilling prophecy of exclusion and marginalization.
Yet, there is an obvious battle people with disabilities have been fighting, that is actively reinforcing discrimination by association: the lack of access to spaces. Discrimination by association is reinforced by systemic barriers that prevent people with disabilities and their loved ones from fully participating in society. The absence of accessible infrastructure, lack of accommodations, and inadequate supp
ort services hinder the inclusion and integration of individuals with disabilities. That, in connection to the economic insecurity people with disabilities often face, adds on another, more special layer, on the extent to which discrimination by association affects our lives. Disability issues are marginalised through this invisibility, and this invisibility can add to feelings of shame associated with disability.
Moving Forward: Towards an Inclusive Society
To combat discrimination by association effectively, we must tackle its underlying causes, which are deeply rooted in societal inequalities and perceptions of status. Merely raising awareness and hoping for empathy is not
enough to create meaningful change. Instead, we must confront these root causes, work toward dismantling the structures that perpetuate discrimination, and collectively build a more inclusive society. The first step towards the deconstruction of harmful perceptions of disability, which eventually lead to discrimination by association, is therefore to combat social inequalities and hierarchical structures in different arenas of society.
A second step is promoting intersectionality. Recognising that discrimination by association intersects with other forms of discrimination,
such as gender, race, and socio-economic status provides more nuanced grounds on which discrimination can be countered. Efforts to address discrimination must similarly be intersectional, acknowledging the complex ways in which various identities intersect to shape individuals' experiences. Stepping away from the misconceptions built around disability, and challenging ableism has a huge impact on discrimination by association. Advocating for disability awareness and education in schools, workplaces, and communities to challenge ableist attitudes and dismantle stereotypes can be one way, but also interaction and in
creased representation with people with disabilities on positions of leadership can help challenge misconceptions about disability. At the same time, governments, organizations, and institutions must develop and enforce inclusive policies that prioritize accessibility, accommodations, and reasonable adjustments for individuals with disabilities and their loved ones. Building solidarity with concrete policies and promoting alliances between disability rights advocates, ally organizations, and other social justice movements has already led to some progress in the process of dismantling systemic misconceptions and mistreatment
of people with disabilities.
However, all efforts must continue, and they should not only come from people with disabilities and the people that are affected by discrimination by association. Self-advocacy of people with disabilities has provided them with platforms where they can share their experiences but that is not enough, as the roots of discrimination that I have described above, are far more complex and ingrained in our societies. Elevating individuals with disabilities to high-status positions in various fields, be it business, politics, academia, or media, is crucial. Such representation can challenge stereotypes, demonstrate competence, and foster a culture of inclusivity. Media, entertainment, and advertising industries also have a key role in shaping societal perceptions. Advo
cating for more positive and accurate portrayals of people with disabilities and their families, and incorporating an intersectional approach can help challenge negative stereotypes to create a more inclusive narrative.
Even though social norms are extremely difficult to challenge, let alone change in a limited timeframe, there are concrete approaches governments, civil society and international organisations can adopt. These include enforcing existing anti-discrimination laws and strengthening legislation to explicitly protect
against discrimination by association; advocating for clear and comprehensive legal protections for people with disabilities and their loved ones, and ensuring that they are not unfairly treated due to their association with disability.
Furthermore, such legal protections can support people with disabilities within their working environments by building actually inclusive workplaces that value diversity and prioritize accessibility. Apart from the rather obvious argument of investing in accessible infrastructure and technology to ensure that physical and digital spaces - such as public transport, buildings, and websites - are accessible, there is the need to further implement policies that promote the recruitment, retention, and advancement of individuals with disabilities, as well as providing necessary accommodations and support services to ensure equal opportunities for people with disabilities. As o
utlined above, such measures must be designed to also concretely counter the discrimination by association that affects families and social relations of people with disabilities. It is critical to recognise the integral role of families in the lives of individuals with disabilities. Offering support and resources to families to help them navigate the challenges they may face due to discrimination by association, as well as developing family-centred services are therefore key measures in the erasure of the social stigma around disability.
In conclusion, discrimination by association is not a
n isolated issue; it is deeply entrenched in societal structures and perpetuated by general inequalities. It stems from deep-rooted social, cultural, and financial factors as well as the popular Western conceptualisations of disability that see disability as a monolith. To truly dismantle this form of discrimination, we must go beyond awareness-raising and empathy and address its root causes that are woven in the fabric of our societies. In other words, to combat this form of discrimination effectively, we must address the larger societal issues that perpetuate ableism and discrimination against people with disabilities. By challenging ableism, advocating for inclusive policies and anti-discriminatory legisl
ation that includes discrimination by association, as well as lobbying for multi-actor collaborations within the international political scene can provide a necessary momentum to challenge discrimination.
Furthermore, legislative protection should be reinforced within the workforce, accommodating people with disabilities, and people that are in protection or proximity to people with disabilities, in order to combat fear of loss of livelihoods. Holding high-status and leadership positions is a first step, but ultimately people with disabilities would not be a minority within the workforce.
This visibility can increase positive representation, which should reflect the richness and diversity of human experiences all while breaking stereotypes and challenging ableist narratives. As discrimination by association is so deeply rooted in societal biases, prejudices, and systemic barriers, we must recognize its complex interplay with structural, social, political and cultural factors and actively work towards creating a society that values diversity and inclusion where people with disabilities and the people in their protection or associated with them are recognized and celebrated for their contributions to society.