Who Self-Identifies as Disabled? An Examination of Impairment and Contextual Predictors

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Abstract

Purpose/Objective: According to Social Identity Theory, minority group members, like people with disabilities, manage stigma by either “passing” as majority group members or identifying with their minority group. Approximately 15% of the world’s population has a disability, but only a fraction of those individuals identify themselves as people with disabilities. Disability identification has been associated with positive outcomes including psychosocial well-being, self-advocacy, and political engagement. The International Classification of Functioning (ICF) recognizes that “disability” is constructed through the intersection of impairment and context (i.e., personal and environmental factors). This is the first study to examine ICF impairment factors (duration, noticeability, presence congenital impairment, pain, severity, and total number of impairments), personal factors (age, ethnicity, gender, income, and psychological distress), and environmental factors (social support and stigma) that predict disability self-identification. Research Method/Design: Participants living in the United States completed an online survey measuring the factors listed above. To avoid selection bias, disability was not mentioned in recruitment materials. Those who reported at least 1 impairment (n = 710) were retained for analysis. Results: Supporting the ICF proposition that disability results from a combination of impairment and contextual factors, disability identification was predicted by severity, age, income, and stigma. Stigma partially mediated the relationship between severity and identification. Conclusions/Implications: Stigma and severity were the strongest predictors of disability identification. Future work should examine ways to foster positive disability identity such as cross-impairment connections through support groups, mentoring, and collective action against stigma.

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