Abstract: Courtesy Stigma in South Korean Special Education Settings (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Courtesy Stigma in South Korean Special Education Settings

Friday, January 17, 2020
Independence BR B, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Minhae Cho, MSW, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Memphis, Memphis, TN
Heejung Yun, PhD, Student, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Minneapolis, MN
Wendy Haight, PhD, Professor and Gamble Skogmo Chair, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, St. Paul, MN
This study examines the perspectives and experiences of elementary school educators in Korea on how behaviors resulting from courtesy stigma affect educators’ social interactions and limits social support available to children with disabilities. Stigmatization experienced by children with disabilities has been a longstanding concern. Yet relatively little attention has focused on challenges caused by stigmatization to people charged with supporting those children. Stigmatization extends to individuals associated with the stigmatized individual or groups through a close personal relationship (i.e., “courtesy stigma,” Goffman, 1963). Both stigmatized individuals and those closely associated with them are often treated as one negatively valued unit (Kayama & Haight, 2014). For example, mothers of children with disabilities may be viewed as “bad mothers” for raising a child who was not “normal.” The internalization of courtesy stigma by people in close relationships with children with disabilities can generate additional barriers to supporting those children.

Although stigmatization is a universal phenomenon, cultures vary in the extent to which challenges due to stigmatization affects individuals’ everyday experiences. South Korea is an important context to examine courtesy stigma because the Confucian virtue of group harmony and traditional agrarian values emphasizes interdependent and caring relationships. Such relationships can become a great source of informal support for children with disabilities at school. Yet such relationships are particularly susceptible to courtesy stigma. This study examines two research questions: (1) What are the challenges in educators’ social interactions with parents, siblings, extended families, and special education teachers due to courtesy stigma? (2) What are effective strategies to minimize courtesy stigma?



Forty-three South Korean educators participated in semi-structured, individual interviews. We induced and contextualized participants’ perceptions and meanings of their experiences through repeated readings of the transcribed interviews (Schwandt, 2007). The credibility of our interpretations was critiqued by educators for the purpose of peer debriefing and through ongoing discussions within a research team.



Korean educators discussed that courtesy stigmatization limits both informal networks and formal services of social support for children with disabilities. Korean educators articulated challenges due to stigmatization experienced by individuals who interact with children with disabilities including with their parents, siblings, and relatives. Parents were reluctant to accept formal services for their children due to fear of losing face for the family and siblings who have limited social interactions because of being bullied by other children. Special education teachers were isolated at school and considered lower in status than classroom teachers. Korean educators described several strategies for responding to courtesy stigmatization such as providing structured awareness programs for children as well as parents throughout the academic year, creating school-wide events centered on special education classrooms, and building personal relationships between regular and special teachers.



Korean educators’ experiences and perspectives on courtesy stigma underscore the importance of formal, structured awareness programs to minimize stigmatization and engage the community in supporting children with disabilities and their families. Examination of courtesy stigma in Korea allows us to reflect back on our taken-for-granted beliefs and practices and thus develop effective culture- and stigma-sensitive strategies in special education settings.