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The Impact of Internalized, Anticipated, and Structural Stigma on Psychological and School Outcomes for High School Students with Learning Disabilities: A Pilot Study


The negative effect of stigma on the psychological well-being and functioning of members of stigmatized groups has been well established across the social psychological, health, and sociology literatures. While definitions vary, most conceptualizations agree that stigma is a phenomenon in which some aspect of identity (e.g. race) is devalued on the basis of stereotypes. Visibility has been acknowledged as one important characteristic that can shape an individual’s experiences of stigma. While a significant body of research has developed around nonvisible or concealable stigmatized identities (CSIs), few studies have considered stigmatization in relation to learning disabilities (LD). This study examined LD-related stigma within the context of U.S. public schools using survey research methods with high school students (N = 40) receiving special education services for an eligibility of specific learning disability (SLD). The survey adapted existing measures of four intrapersonal stigma identity constructs (anticipated stigma, salience, centrality, and self-stigma) and secrecy as well as six measures of mental health and school-related outcomes. Data on least restrictive environment (LRE) (i.e. the percentage of time students spend in general versus special education) were collected in order to provide support for a proposed conceptual model in which differences in LRE were predicted to correlate with differences in student levels of stigma. Bivariate correlations and a series of linear regression models were used to examine predicted associations between LRE, stigma, depression, anxiety, self-esteem, school belonging, academic engagement, and perceived barriers to college. While no significant relationship was found between LRE and any of the outcome measures, internalized stigma, anticipated stigma, and secrecy were each associated with one or more of the mental health and/or school outcome variables. This pilot study raised several measurement issues to consider in future research – including the need to distinguish between stigma related to a disability label (such as LD) and stigma associated with receiving special education. Lastly, a number of participants indicated on the survey that they did not have a LD, though their eligibility had been previously confirmed by school personnel during the recruitment phase of the study. The implications of nonidentification, both for research and practice, are discussed.

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