Changing Attitudes Towards Disability

Changing Attitudes Towards Disability

Dana S. Dunn

Whether it is congenital (present at birth) or acquired (via accident or disease), a disability is bound up with the life of a disabled person, but it is still only one of many personal qualities possessed by an individual. Disability only becomes salient to a disabled person when some aspect of the environment—an inaccessible building or a curious comment or inappropriate question from a bystander—makes it so. The experience of most people with disabilities is generally not what most nondisabled people assume: Contrary to everyday beliefs and expectations, people with disabilities lead full and normal lives.

Situational Factors

Where disability is concerned, everyday situational factors, including barriers, whether actual (e.g., lack of an entry ramp) or imagined (e.g., “unfriendly” facial expressions) have considerable influence on the lived experience of disabled persons. We do not say that people are “handicapped” by their disabilities; rather, the nature of the built world is handicapping to them. Clearly, the constructed environment was designed for nondisabled people and not, for example, people who use wheelchairs or those who walk with crutches or canes.

Yet nondisabled observers often ignore or downplay the influence of situations or environmental factors on disabled people’s behavior. They focus on qualities attributable to the person with a disability, especially presumed personality characteristics. If a wheelchair user cannot cross a street (e.g., no curb cut is there) or get inside a car (e.g., the seats cannot be moved sufficiently), observers see the problem as residing in the person—“he must be frustrated about what he can’t do!”—­­ and not the environment. Because disabled people can appear different than nondisabled people, they are interesting to look at—and nondisabled people are curious, so they sometimes stare and imagine what disability must be like (presumably negative and a distraction from “normal” living, neither of which is necessarily true).

Categorization and Stereotyping

The real or perceived presence of a disability leads nondisabled people to automatically categorize disabled people as members of an outgroup (i.e., a different group than nondisabled people inhabit). One aspect of this routine social categorization process is essentialism, where the disability is automatically highlighted over all other qualities possessed by the person. In effect, the person is equated with or seen exclusively in terms of disability. That one quality spreads to all other qualities and is assumed to affect them. For example, following a stroke, the affected person’s disfluent speech is presumed to indicate lowered intelligence when that is generally not the case. Although speech production ability may have been affected the memory, knowledge, or skills are still intact.

Changing Minds

Psychologists suggest that increasing contact between people who are different from one another can lead to more harmonious feelings and behaviors. This contact hypothesis has been verified in over 500 research studies where meaningful contact between diverse groups leads to positive outcomes. In both controlled and field settings, this intergroup contact theory finds favorable attitude change where race, ethnicity, mental illness, age, people with HIV/AIDs, LGBTQ individuals, and people with disabilities are concerned.

Changing people’s minds positively happens when:

Interaction is personal – Contact is one-on-one so that nondisabled individuals can engage with disabled individuals.

People are equal – Individuals from each group are seen as having equal rank or social standing.

Social norms exist – Expected behavior in a given situation promotes contact between respective group members.

Cooperative activities occur – Individuals from each group work together on some project to realize shared, specific goals.


            Take a few minutes and imagine a situation where a nondisabled person and a disabled individual could work on a common project and get to know one another in the process. What sort of problem could they work on together?

            Once you decide, explain how:

  • Their interaction will be personal – what can or will make it so?
  • That they will be equals in the situation – how will you establish equality?
  • Identify and describe the social norms that will be in play – what are they and why?
  • Describe the cooperative activities that will take place in some detail.

Remember: You are using your imagination here, so you can be creative in your answers to these questions.

When you finish, ask yourself this: How can this activity be broadened and applied to other disabled and nondisabled people who can learn from one another?