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The Damage Caused by Infantilizing the Disabled

Are infantilizing comments to the disabled tantamount to abuse?

Key points

  • Explicit or implicit infantilization can be damaging to the disabled.
  • Infantilization could be divided into macro - micro-aggressions.
  • Infantilization impedes a disabled person's road to independence.
Philippe Leroyer (Flickr CC)
Source: Philippe Leroyer (Flickr CC)

My fifteen year-old son speaks very little, often says things out of place, talks to himself, but he is also currently exploring the world of sex, listens to hip-hop and punk music, lifts weights at the gym with me, creates elaborate, magnetic drawings.

A few weeks ago, a substitute teacher stuck a sticker on my son's hand for answering a question correctly. Last Christmas, a caregiver encouraged him to sit on Santa Claus’s lap. Lately, a new art teacher has been giving him arts & crafts projects that even his five year-old brother would find painfully easy.

After these brief encounters occur, my son’s intuition screams that something is wrong. When he informs me, the distinct collapse of my facial muscles confirm his suspicion. He has been infantilized. The next few days are always a quiet, numb struggle to recoup his self-esteem.

"Infantilizing is treating someone as less than they are," says Dr. Sherry Benton, a practicing therapist and founder of the digital mental health platform TAO Connect. "It is treating them as a child, a victim, and so forth."

In fact, as Zoe Gross of the Autism Self-Advocacy Network told me, treating a disabled person different than their age can be considered a micro-aggression.

“If someone is sixteen and believes in Santa Claus and wants to write a letter to him, that is one thing. When a non-disabled person puts expectations on someone disabled to act younger or tries to pull status on a disabled person, as if saying, ‘I’m a better adult than you,’ that is disconcerting.”

Parents caregivers, and teachers often believe that they are being kind or benevolent when, in fact, they are inadvertently holding back a disabled person from their right to independence. Catherine Thornberry and Karin Olson RN, Ph.D. of the University of Alberta write in the, The Abuse of Individuals with Developmental Disabilities. Infantilization, infantilization is often done under the guise of “for their own protection” so that “this paternalistic attitude gives people with developmental disabilities even less control over their lives, reinforces their dependency on others, encourages over-compliance, and increases their social vulnerability.”

Micro-actions versus Macro-actions

Kenneth L. Robey, PhD, CPHQ, CPPS, author of, Implicit Infantilizing Attitudes About Disability, is an incident investigator in healthcare and experiences first-hand micro-aggressions in the workplace.

“Parents and caregivers do sometimes engage in ‘micro-actions,’” he told me. “One might say infantilize the individual – those small day to day actions, sometimes subtle, combine to comprise an infantilizing approach to the individual such as speaking to the adult with disabilities in a higher frequency voice as one might with small children; not asking the individual’s input on the morning’s clothing choices.”

The motivating forces behind these ‘macro-actions,’ according to Robey, are:


  1. Implicit associations. We all carry unconscious, implicit associations or attitudes that impact our interactions with others. This implicit “infantilizing” influences the behaviors not only of people who have little exposure to those with disabilities, but the behaviors of parents and caregivers with considerable exposure to people with disabilities.
  2. Parental caring and protectiveness. As parents, we seek to protect our children, including our adult children, from harm and young people who do have disabilities might be particular targets of this desire to protect. Our protective instincts are strongest when responsible for caring for those who have either real or imagined fragility.
  3. Guilt. Parents of children with disabilities often experience uncertainty, whether rational or irrational, of whether their child’s disability is related to their own actions or inactions. An enhanced sense of protectiveness might be a compensation for that sense of guilt.
  4. Cultural norms. There are dramatic cultural differences in how disability is viewed and addressed, ranging from cultures where disability is believed to be a punishment for the sins of family members or ancestors, to cultures where disability has very little stigma or expectation of functional limitation. Cultural background can be a strong influence on how parents and caregivers transition from a relationship of dependence to one of interdependence.

When a caregiver or parent's behavior reflects one of these four factors, their “micro-and/or macro-aggression/s” effects the disabled person’s autonomy and self-efficacy. Their self-esteem, their ability to grow and experience the world like non-disabled people is threatened. However, given the complexity of the the influences of infantilizing behaviors, Robey, is hesitant to call infantilization “abuse.”

The Importance of Independence

Creating space for independence, providing opportunities for the disabled person to explore the world and take risks, is perhaps one of the most important things caregivers and parents can do. The more confident they feel, the more risks they make and thus mistakes, thus growing and experiencing the same rights as the non-disabled in their journey into adulthood. Being consciously aware of those who impede the road to independence for the disabled and those who promote it, requires a delicate vigilance.

Narcissistic parents are especially complicit in holding back their child. Susan Krauss Whitborne writes that narcissistic parents, “need their children to stay dependent on them long past when the childhood days are over, so that they can continue to feel important in their lives.”

Disability planner, Betty Lehman, told me that separating parents from their disabled child, early on, is one of her biggest challenges. She is adamant though that independence is a long, but necessary road.

“As people in the policy world, trying to influence political realities,” Zoe Gross told me, “this (infantilizing, micro-aggressions) is something we still deal with a lot. For example, I’ve given a speech at the U.N.and come down from the stage and had a parent of a disabled child give me a pat on the back and said, ‘Good job.’ It doesn’t matter how adult you are, there will always be someone who is infantilizing you.”

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