Does Disability, Perceived Discrimination and Depression Vary by Race?

The harmful effects of discrimination are well established. Prior studies have documented that the negative effects of discrimination extend to a wide-array of behavioral, mental, and physical health outcomes. Most of this work has focused racial/ethnic discrimination. This is so because race and racism have been recognized to be fundamental in defining the nature of one’s interactions with social environments and institutions. However, recent studies have extended consideration to other forms of discrimination. This is based on the assumption that all types of discrimination are harmful. Research confirms this: unfair treatment based on low socioeconomic status (SES), gender, age, sexual orientation and other disadvantaged social statuses also increase risk for poor health. This more recent body of research also suggests that occupancy in multiple disadvantaged social statuses may increase the relationship between discrimination and health risks.

One social status that is largely absent from this burgeoning body of work is physical disability. This is surprising given recent demographic trends toward a “graying” U. S. population and a corresponding increase in rates of physical morbidity over time. In response to this gap in knowledge, our paper, using depressive symptoms as the outcome of interest, sought to address the following research questions. Does having a physical disability increase overall perceptions of unfair treatment? If so, is this statistical relationship consistent across race/ethnic groups? Do the harmful psychological effects of having a physical disability strengthen the relationship between perceptions racial/ethnic based discrimination and depressive symptoms? If so, is this relationship the same for blacks, whites, and Hispanics?

To address these questions, we analyzed survey data from a community based multi-ethnic sample of 1,859 study participants residing in South Florida. This analysis revealed that disabled whites and Hispanics report higher levels of discrimination than their non-disabled counterparts. However, this pattern was not observed among black respondents who reported high levels of discrimination regardless of their disability status. We also found that, among Hispanic, and to a lesser extent white study respondents, having a physical disability increased the statistical relationship between discrimination and depressive symptoms. Again, this was not the case for African American respondents.

We interpret these findings to underscore the unfortunate reality that, for African Americans, race remains their defining social characteristic with regards to the linkages between discrimination and mental health. Although the African Americans experienced higher rates of physical disability compared to whites and Hispanics, the harmful psychological effects of having a physical disability did not alter the very strong statistical relationship between racial discrimination and depression. These findings are also consistent with the argument that for blacks race and racism remain a fundamental cause of unequal health, even when other disadvantaged social statuses, such as physical disability are taken into consideration.

quentinQuentin Kilpatrick is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology.





John Taylor is a Professor of Sociology. He studies ethnicity and Health, Mental Health, and stress.




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