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Disability in Media - Lesson 7: Disability as a burden

Lesson 7: Disability as a burden


The belief that disability is a burden is arguably the most widespread misconception that stigmatizes the disability community. Certainly, disability presents a number of challenges, but as students learned in previous lessons, many of these challenges take the form of social barriers stemming from ablist attitudes. This lesson will go above and beyond presenting this stereotype, its origins and implications. It will provide a number of examples that demonstrate how prevalent this stereotype is in both the media and society as a whole, and connect to previous discussions about universal design and ablism more thoroughly.

The disability as burden stereotype is inextricably linked to debates about the worthiness of one’s life. Many non-disabled members of society have unconsciously labeled the lives of persons with disabilities as less important or worthy and this will be illustrated in a number of ways. Debates about abortions and assisted suicide that are frequently highlighted in the media will be drawn upon to supplement these discussions and more clearly define the implications of this particular stereotype. Furthermore, students will learn how this stereotype often works to prevent social change, and the particular effects this stereotype has on educators and parents working alongside children with disabilities.

Learning Outcomes

Upon completion of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Identify examples of the disability as burden stereotype, its possible origins and social implications
  • Explain how this stereotype can impact the individual perceptions of persons with disabilities
  • Understand how this stereotype can lesson the expectations of parents and educators working alongside children with disabilities
  • Identify how this stereotype can prevent social change on a structural level
  • Recognize how this stereotype impacts and shapes many contemporary debates about the worthiness of life
  • More clearly understand the concept of ablism and the social construction of disability


  1. (7 min.) Spend the beginning portion of the lesson introducing this stereotype and providing several examples from the media to more clearly illustrate what it entails.

  2. (4 min.) Explain that the origins of this stereotype work to "other" persons with disabilities. That is, those without disabilities label persons with disabilities and assume to know what it is like to be in their shoes, and consequently, how worthy or unworthy their lives must be. Be sure to present this in a carefully phrased way, so as to not accuse all persons of possessing these atttitudes. Rather, these beliefs and attitudes are often unconscious and unintended. Conclude by explaining that this stereotype is often invoked when the disability is viewed above and beyond any other aspect of an individual's identity, and is thus seen as the central feature of that person's self.

  3. (15 min.) Implications: Discuss the following implications with students:

    1. How this stereotype can affect the self-perceptions of persons with disabilities: for example, if children are raised to believe that they are a burden and somehow inferior and incapable of living up to the non-disabled standard, a pattern of self-helplessness can be set in motion. This can then become a circle: they are not expected to be independent or capable; they do not think they are; they are not. In this sense, the stereotype and misconception of disability as burden can transform into reality. Students can therefore see how severe the social implications of particular attitudes can be.
    2. How this stereotype can lessen the expectations of parents and educators: linked to the above, if children with disabilities are not expected to be self-sufficient from the start, the bar is thus lowered and the potential for success is impacted. For example, a child who is blind may not be taught to cook because it is assumed that this task is "too dangerous" and that the child will never be capable of doing it. The child is therefore never taught (while many other children who are blind are), and the stereotype thus becomes a reality for this child that severely impacts their level of independence and self-worth. They will have to rely on someone else, and in this way, disability is in fact a burden.
    3. How this stereotype can prevent social change: In other words, if disability is truly viewed as a burden; if it is believed that persons with disabilities cannot contribute to society, nor would their contribution be of worth, then the likelihood of structural change is very low. For example, why would accessible, independent electoral voting for the blind be put in place, if the societal belief is that their opinions and contributions are of lesser worth? Why bother improving employment laws that prevent persons with disabilities from receiving reasonable work accommodations if it is assumed that they cannot contribute anything of value to a company? In this way, laws remain the same and the stereotype works as a serious social barrier to change. Students must be made aware of the damaging effects of this stereotype.
  4. (25 min.) Link this stereotype to contemporary debates, while encouraging class discussion:

    • Abortion: Explain that doctors can often predict whether an unborn child will have a disability. Therefore, they can have the child aborted as soon as this is discovered. Is this right? Is it wrong? At what point is it wrong? For example, does it depend on the type of disability? And according to whom? Is a blind child's life more worthy or less worthy than the life of a child who will be unable to walk? Is it the choice of the larger society to make this decision? Remind students that most members of society - including the vast majority of the medical profession - know very little about disability or what level of independence persons with disabilities can experience with often simple accommodations. As such, a parent may believe that the effects of a disability are much worse than they actually will be, and in this way, this stereotype can severely impact abortion debates.
    • Euthenasia: The Latimer case is a prime example of this. Mention to students that they will be asked to read more on the case as part of their homework tonight, but briefly describe the story. Have students reflect on their reaction to the case. Were the father's decisions right, or wrong? How do students feel about the fact that this father was not convicted for a long time because his daughter, whom he killed, was disabled? In other words, if his daughter was not disabled, he would have been charged, and likely convicted, much more quickly. Instead, the stereotype of disability as burden leads society to pass judgments which assume that the lives of persons with disabilities must necessarily be horrific, and are therefore less worthy. It is therefore not "as bad" to rid them of their misery. Where do students fall on this debate?
  5. (10 min.) Have students think about the many debates introduced in class today, and encourage them to reread much of the information as homework. This is essential for their blog entries today. Finally, dismiss students.


  • Write an entry reflecting on the overlapping debates discussed in class today.

Materials Required

  • A computer with access to the Internet
  • A PowerPoint presentation to enhance the themes introduced
  • Video clip: to follow

Video Clip

Lesson Activities

  • Lecture, supported by PowerPoint presentation
  • Class Discussion
  • Video Clip

Assigned Readings