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Most Disability Professionals are Ableist

By Carli Friedman, CQL Director of Research

Discrimination and prejudice towards disability – ableism – is extremely common in our society, negatively impacting disabled people’s health and quality of life. It’s important to examine the disability attitudes of disability professionals (those who work with disabled people or whose work is about disability) because they frequently interact with disabled people and can impact disabled people’s lives significantly. In addition, despite often being nondisabled, disability professionals are positioned as “experts” on disability, shaping ideas and knowledge about disability.

For these reasons, the aim of this study was to examine the explicit (conscious) and implicit (unconscious) disability attitudes of disability professionals. To do so, I had 417 disability professionals participate in the Symbolic Ableism Scale and Disability Attitudes Implicit Association Test.

I found the majority of disability professionals (77.2%) explicitly preferred nondisabled people, with 54.2% of disability professionals moderately or strongly preferring nondisabled people. In addition, the overwhelming majority of disability professionals (82.0%) implictly preferred nondisabled people. In fact, more than two-thirds of disability professionals (68.4%) either moderately or strongly preferred nondisabled people.

Disability Professionals’ Explicit Attitudes

Explicit attitudes. No preference 22.8%. Preference for nondisabled people: slight 23.0%, moderate 36.3%, and strong 17.9%.

Disability Professionals’ Implicit Attitudes

Implicit attitudes. Preference for disabled people: 1.8% strong, 2% moderate, 3.8% slight. No preference is 10.4%. Preference for nondisabled people: 13.7% slight, 23.5% moderate, 44.8% strong.

As a result of most disability professionals having negative explicit and implicit disability attitudes, very few disability professionals’ (15.8%) scored as truly low prejudice according to the two-dimensional model of prejudice.

In fact, disability professionals in this study most commonly scored as symbolic ableists (37.8%), with high levels of explicit and implicit ableism. In addition, about one-third of disability professionals scored as aversive ableists (31.1%), with low explicit and high implicit attitudes, meaning they were not only unconsciously biased against disability, but consciously did not realize it.

Disability Professionals’ Prejudice Styles

Pie chart of prejudice styles. Symbolic ableist (high explicit, high implicit) 37.8%, principled conservative (high explicit, low implicit) 15.3%, aversive ableist (low explicit, high implicit) 31.1%, truly low prejudiced (low explicit, low implicit) 15.8%.

“Disability professionals’ bias against disabled people is problematic not only for those disabled people they directly interact with, but because their power in creating and sharing information about disability can also help serve to reinforce ableism in society at large… The negative disability attitudes of disability professionals are a direct threat to the health and quality of life of disabled people. Ableism cannot be eradicated until disability professionals look inward and rid themselves of negative attitudes; until that occurs, disability professionals will continue to do a disservice to the very people they have dedicated their careers to – disabled people” (Friedman, 2023, p. 6).

This article is a summary of the following journal manuscript: Friedman, C. (2023). Explicit and implicit: Ableism of disability professionals. Disability and Health Journal, 16(4), 101482.