People with MS Experience Microaggressions at Work, New Award-Winning Paper Finds



By Linsey Maughan
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Associate Professors of Psychology Eun-Jeong Lee and Nicole Ditchman, along with psychology graduate students Julia Thomas and Jonathon Tsen, have been named the recipients of the American Rehabilitation Counseling Association’s 2020 Research Award for their paper titled “Microaggressions Experienced by People with Multiple Sclerosis in the Workplace.” The paper, published in Rehabilitation Psychology, presents findings of a study led by Lee and Ditchman that was funded by a 2016 grant from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (PI: Lee).

“I hope this article will help people understand the concept of microaggressions and raise public awareness about how people with disabilities experience microaggressions in various contexts,” Lee says.

MS is a chronic, inflammatory disease of the brain and spinal cord that can lead to physical, cognitive, and psychiatric symptoms. It affects nearly 1 million adults in the United States, Lee says. Microaggressions, meanwhile, are verbal and nonverbal behaviors of a derogatory or negative nature imparted either intentionally or unintentionally onto marginalized individuals—in this case, those with a disability.

In their study, Lee and Ditchman engaged 29 adults with MS in focus groups that explored their workplace experiences.

“We found that almost all of the participants reported experiencing some form of microaggressions in their workplace,” Lee says. “Several important themes emerged, including pathologizing (e.g., normal behaviors attributed to MS), assumption of disability status, feeling perceived as a second-class citizen, lack of awareness from others about MS, social distance, and denial of symptoms by others.”

Participants in the study reported stress as a result of the experienced and perceived microaggressions in the workplace, and reported various coping strategies they used to deal with microaggressions. Some participants also described cases of more blatant discrimination in their workplaces.

“During the focus group, we observed many internal struggles from our participants, because although they wanted to disclose their disability to their employer, they also feared possible consequences from their disclosure,” Lee says. “It seemed that those internal struggles led to stress and challenges with interpersonal relationships, both within and outside of the workplace. Results also suggested that it is beneficial for people with MS to engage in local support groups for more resources and to develop coping strategies to help reduce stress.”

As a next step, Lee and Ditchman aim to develop an intervention program that helps to increase awareness of workplace microaggressions while also promoting quality of work life and well-being for workers with MS. They plan to use a community-based participatory research (CBPR) approach that would engage people with MS in the program’s planning. They also want to expand the scope of the project by seeking support from other foundations toward a broader microaggression intervention program: one that could be utilized in workplaces where individuals with a variety of minority statuses—including race/ethnicity, gender, age, and other types of disabilities—might benefit.

Ditchman says receiving the ARCA award has further inspired her to continue with this line of research.

“I appreciate knowing that others viewed this work as meaningful,” she says. “I feel an even stronger sense of motivation to ensure that we build on our findings to develop effective strategies to promote employment and quality of life for people with MS.”

Lee and Ditchman would like to thank the National Multiple Sclerosis Society for funding this study, the graduate students for their contributions to this project, and the chapters of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and study participants for sharing their stories.

This investigation was supported by a grant from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (grant number PP-1603-08361).

Photo: Associate Professor of Psychology Nicole Ditchman [left] and Associate Professor of Psychology Eun-Jeong Lee