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Overcoming Unconscious Bias with MS

By Matt Cavallo
wheelchair-3088991_1920-(1).jpgUnconscious biases are considered social stereotypes that we develop without even realizing that we are doing so. We develop these over time because of our personal experience, exposure or they are unintentionally handed down from generation to generation. Unconscious biases stem from our tendency to organize the world around us by categorizing certain social situations, attitudes, cultures, stereotypes, emotional reactions and more.

These biases are rarely obvious. Most of the time people do not voice a bias, rather they think it. However, biases tend to surface when we don’t understand or can’t explain something. Unconscious biases are something that people with MS deal with almost every day because of the invisible nature of the disease. 

A great example of unconscious bias is disabled parking. Many people living with MS have no outward signs of disability but qualify for disabled parking. Then, when you use an accessible parking space, you are met with the stares and silent judgement of the onlookers whose unconscious bias can’t accept that you may actually be disabled because they don’t see it.

I read about these unconscious biases over and over on social media posts. It is not just parking spots. It is family, friends, and coworkers questioning the person with MS because they can’t see chronic fatigue. People can’t see pins and needles. They don’t understand the extra effort that it takes just to get up and moving. They hear what they think are excuses because of their unconscious bias.

Because we all know these social biases exists, how can we overcome these biases related to MS? Here are some tips.

1. Be aware unconscious bias exist. If someone questions your disability, it can feel like a personal assault on your character. Recognize that the other person might not know about the MS patient experience and understand that what they said isn’t a reflection of you and your condition. Rather it is an unconscious bias towards what they believe MS should look like. 

2. Challenge your own bias. One of the ways to overcome unconscious bias is to challenge your own. If you can understand why you have certain biases, then you can learn what it takes to help others overcome their bias, too.

3. Opportunities to educate. Don’t just talk about the symptoms, talk about the disease process. If you are feeling symptomatic, it is a way to let others know that MS does more than just affect your walking. That it is a brain disease and even though you can’t see it, MS can cause fatigue and other invisible symptoms. The more you bring the symptoms back to MS, the more others can correlate the symptoms to the illness.

4. Don’t give up when the first time doesn’t work. People spend a lifetime developing these biases, so there is nothing you can do or say that will automatically reverse a bias that has grown over a lifetime. Just be patient and educate when the opportunity arises.

5. There is no “one size fits all” solution. We are all different and have different experiences, so when you are trying to help someone overcome their bias, you have to cater your approach to be specific to the individual. It may also take some people longer to change than others. We all learn at our own pace.