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  • Scott Hatley

Getting to the Root of Stigma

Updated: Feb 22

The heartbeat of our work at INCIGHT has always been about breaking down the barriers which keep those with disabilities from being able to contribute to society to their fullest potential. It’s a two-way equation built upon greater awareness of the root causes of these barriers, along with practical knowledge for establishing the culture to change them.

A significant platform for this message over the years has been INCIGHT’s annual fundraising Gala, a captive audience who supports and helps fund this important mission.

Going into our 16th annual Gala event, we have taken a different tenor for our theme in comparison to our long line of previous ones. Our 2023 theme of “Getting to the Root of Stigma,” while different, builds upon INCIGHT’s past themes of Masquerade, Hollywood, Speakeasy, Derby, Halloween and Vintage Circus, to name a few. 2023 marks our return to in-person Galas after a four-year hiatus. Far from planned, it comes at a time when so much has been changing for INCIGHT and everyone around us.

Matching our farm-to-table format, our earthy Gala theme coincides well with both our past and our future trajectory. For 18+ years we have been planting the seeds of change with the hope they take root, touch hearts and minds, and spread to a new generation of inspired sowers. While progress has been made, we believe we are entering a new season for this work, a “new beginning” of sorts. The ground is becoming more fertile toward those with disabilities, and for conversations around how to harness the abilities and untapped potential of this population. At the same time, our messaging, mission and strategy has been changing and evolving to meet this new reality.

What has not changed since our beginning is the need for INCIGHT’s services, resources, events and content. We believe stigma is still as relevant, important and challenging to tackle today as it has been at any other point in INCIGHT’s history. It’s why INCIGHT exists. It’s what drives our work. And, it’s precisely the reason why it’s the theme for INCIGHT’s 2023 Gala.

In and of itself, the word “Stigma” feels very negative and the nature of its definition doesn’t sound much better. According to Merriam-Webster, the word was borrowed from the Latin word “stigmat(a)”, meaning an “identifying mark or characteristic.” In modern use the mark is more figurative—stigma refers to a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something. It’s a term which can feel heavy and off-putting, and yet we as a society have grown to use this term in many different contexts. Stigmatization of those with disabilities is certainly one of these contexts.

With this in mind, what is the root of stigma?

For INCIGHT, stigma has always been about limiting beliefs and unfair judgements. It’s never been about people with disabilities pointing their fingers at society and saying, “it's all your fault.” No, no, no. There is equal culpability to go around. Whether intentionally—or in most cases, unintentionally—stigma is perpetuated due to a lack of awareness around the culture of disability, both in what’s possible for this population and what should be expected of them. It means we are all part of the problem—we are all part of the solution—whether or not we have a documented disability.

We all know stigma is very limiting and is a significant barrier to understanding for the community. It is the root of the problem. It is the pest in our garden. It is why the crop fails. We believe it's what holds us back individually and collectively from growing and thriving as a society.

Now, I don’t know about you, but negative-focused thinking and getting caught up in who might be to blame for wrongs which have been done doesn’t come naturally to me. For

some, it’s easy to get into this type of thinking, sitting back and playing the victim. I prefer a more positive, proactive and solution-oriented approach and mindset.

While the concept of stigma is clearly negative, the roots which develop out of stigma can be positive. It gives us an opportunity for learning and change. “How so?” You might ask? Viewing this through the eyes of “the Parable of the Sower” can provide some greater clarity. This parable outlines the different levels of receptivity in the soil for how a sower sows seeds. When some seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, they were scorched by the sun, withering away. Others fell on the path, the heavily trampled ground, where the birds came and snatched the seeds up. Some fell among thorns, and when the thorns grew up they were choked. Finally, other seeds fell on good soil, and they produced a bountiful harvest. This parable has many applicable life meanings and messages, and it also has many correlations to our work at INCIGHT and this year’s Gala theme. In earnest, with the right environment, culture and message, it is clear any seed can take root and produce change.

A key part of cultivating the seeds of change is the development of a root system. A root is what provides nourishment to plants, it’s the ending of a tooth within its socket, it’s how our organs are attached to our bodies, it's the proximal end of a nerve or the part by which an object is attached to something else. In breaking it open further, the verb definitions of the word “root” speak more closely to INCIGHT’s mission and work—“to enable to develop roots” and “to wish the success of or lend support to someone or something.” The gist is “to build a network of support to achieve success.”

Our team wants to support those we serve so they can develop a root system in the community while helping them cultivate the opportunities needed to leverage their obstacles in life and unlock their greatest potential. We seek to break down stereotypes, by focusing on a disability awareness message unlike any you have previously heard. Set apart from other DEI messages, we focus on ability and shaping perspectives by bringing everyone along in the conversation. We want to meet people where they are at in inspiring them to be ready, willing, and able to act to create change. Said another way, we want to gather people together to cultivate change, actively engaging them in the seeding process, watching their investments grow roots in fertile soil and yielding a great harvest. What are we growing here at INCIGHT? We are growing jobs, inclusion and a fair playing field in the game of life.

What’s the silver lining for getting to the root of stigma? As we all know in life, we typically reap what we sow. When we have a healthier garden, the bounty is limitless, both for us individually and collectively. Keeping this in mind, let’s take the time to put the appropriate amount of attention and energy into actively engaging in cultivating seeds of understanding and harvesting new opportunities and inclusion. Society might just reap a bountiful harvest.

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