Microaggression is a term coined by Derald Wing Sue, a Columbia University professor, to describe intentional or unintentional behaviors, insults, and indignities which demean, shame, marginalize, or outright intimidate individual groups of people (ADL, 1).
Traditionally, aggressions have been associated with school age children bullying peers that may not fall into what is considered the mainstream. Aggression associated with children generally escalate into more physical forms of abuse which is more blatant and easily detected. However, more subtle forms of degradation have become more pervasive in all levels of our society.
“…unintentional microaggressions repeated frequently by well-meaning friends and family can erode one’s self-esteem and potential to thrive.”
Adults and children affected by developmental conditions fall prey to microaggression at school, work, community settings and within their own social groups and families. Premeditated aggression as well as misguided actions that marginalize individuals can be devastating. In fact, unintentional microaggressions repeated frequently by well-meaning friends and family can erode one’s self-esteem and potential to thrive.
Trust your instincts to identify elements of microaggression in social settings. Every person has a built-in thermostat that gauges the temperature of their environment. The human spirt has the natural ability to embrace genuine acceptance and to reject anything that feels uncomfortable. Individuals with developmental conditions must navigate their way through situations where, for no other reason than having a condition, they are marginalized. For those who are unable to advocate for themselves, caregivers are charged with the task of decerning ways to guard loved ones from being demeaned and marginalized.
“Individuals with developmental conditions must navigate their way through situations where, for no other reason than having a condition, they are marginalized.”
During initial interactions, much information can be gathered by simply looking and listening to what is going on in our surrounding. Non-verbal and verbal communication are filled with hints as to how one may feel about individuals with conditions such as autism, Down syndrome, Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, Tourette syndrome, or someone with a visual impairment.
Non-verbal cues of microaggression directed toward individuals with neurodevelopmental conditions can include:
1. Facial expressions (i.e. staring, smirking, eye rolling, dismay)
2. Hand gestures (i.e. pointing, dismissive waves, obscene gestures)
3. Body posture (i.e. turning ones back on or looking away from an individual as they speak)
4. Avoidance (i.e. moving away from someone after they have joined a group)
5. Exclusion from events (i.e. lack of reasonable accommodations for individuals with conditions at social events, not extending invitations to social event to individuals with impairments)
6. Lack of opportunity for professional growth in work settings (i.e. being excluded from conferences and workshops needed for advancement, placing workers with a condition in dead end jobs, failure to provide reasonable accommodations to individual related with visible conditions)
Verbal cues of Microaggression directed toward individuals with neurodevelopmental conditions can include:
1. A person’s tone of voice that causes anxiety to someone with a condition (i.e. impatient, dismissive, condescending, angry, demeaning)
2. Derogatory comments (i.e. “your kind doesn’t belong here”, “why don’t you just go out on disability”)
3. Speaking on behalf of someone who can express their thoughts (i.e. failing to get input prior to making a decision about a person with a developmental condition, overriding the stated wishes of individuals with a condition to get a different result)
4. Inappropriate jokes (i.e. peers laughing at distasteful comments regarding individuals with developmental conditions)
5. Workplace bullying (i.e. an environment where workers with developmental conditions are consistently verbally harassed and intimidated without repercussions by designated supervisors)
Non-verbal and verbal microaggression can be related to a combination of intentional and unintentional unacceptance of individuals with developmental conditions. Lack of education regarding various conditions, stereotyping, uncertainty as of how to interact with someone who is different, or fear of the “saying the wrong thing” may cause avoidance behaviors.
“However, behaviors that intentionally demean and provoke anxiety or fear anxiety in individuals with developmental conditions are most likely rooted in prejudice, intolerance, peer pressure, toxic environments, and stereotyping.”
The first step to navigating a successful pathway through obstacles involves recognizing the source of barriers.
Effectively identifying non-verbal and verbal forms of microaggression equips you to develop a plan to overcome intentional and unintentional behaviors that marginalize individuals with developmental conditions.
“By identifying people that sabotage your journey to self-actualization, you also can now clearly focus on who your allies are. These individuals are your support system and refuge from those that have missed out on your unique gifts and skillsets.”
The next step to overcoming microaggression is remember that your power can only be taken away if you relinquish it. Never allow other people’s stereotypes, fears, and intolerance to become your reality.
Identify your strengths and unique talents (i.e. organization skills, attention to detail, vocalist, artist, excellent memory, love of numbers, etc.) and excel in those areas. Use your voice to state your needs in your personal and professional spaces.
“Identify your strengths and unique talents (i.e. organization skills, attention to detail, vocalist, artist, excellent memory, love of numbers, etc.) and excel in those areas. Use your voice to state your needs in your personal and professional spaces.”
Believe it or not, your tenacity is a form of self-advocacy and will let everyone know that you are not your diagnosis.
Additionally, confidence in who you are will educate others and shatter stereotypes about individuals with developmental disabilities. Another wonderful outcome is that you will develop a roadmap for success that others on your same journey can follow.
Asserting yourself initially may be daunting if this has not been a common practice. In this case, enlist the support of an ally to get started on the road to self-advocacy.
When intentional macroaggression directed toward individuals with developmental conditions persist in the workplace more aggressive steps may need to take place.
It is always a good idea to give the management team and human resources an opportunity to address workplace behaviors that demean and marginalize workers with developmental conditions. Always document any internal steps taken to address microaggression and document the outcomes. If this approach proves to be ineffective, it should be noted that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission can be used as a resource to help enforce the American with Disabilities Act of 1990. Covered workers are entitled to a non-discriminatory environment with reasonable accommodations associated with their disability. In Europe, similar support can be obtained by contacting FRA European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.
Michele Pitts-Brown is a Development Disabilities Consultant and Advocate dedicated to cultivating vocational opportunities, independent living skills, and inclusion for individuals with unique abilities. An Amazon best selling author, Michele has over 37 years of professional experience that support the development of children who are often marginalized. Her expertise also includes personal experiences of raising two children, one of which has autism.
Anti-Defamation League “What is Microaggression?” (2014), Retrieved, 1/7/2020
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Retrieved, 1/8/2020)
FRA European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, People with Disabilities, Retrieved 1/8/2020
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