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Most People Are Prejudiced Against People with Disabilities

By Carli Friedman, CQL Director of Research

Ableism, the social oppression of people with disabilities, is pervasive and impacts not only our interactions with others but also systems, such as policies. Attitudes operate on two levels – explicit attitudes are conscious ones, while implicit attitudes are unconscious ones. People’s explicit and implicit attitudes do not always align because of the ways explicit and implicit attitudes operate. Moreover, people might not even be aware they hold biased attitudes!

Modern ableism can be broken into four groups depending on different levels of explicit and implicit prejudice. Symbolic ableists have high explicit prejudice and implicit prejudice. Although they recognize there is still discrimination against people with disabilities and have some empathy toward people with disabilities, symbolic ableists score high in terms of individualism, including the idea that if people with disabilities try hard enough they can succeed. Aversive ableists have low explicit prejudice and high implicit prejudice. Aversive people believe they are not prejudiced—in fact, egalitarian values are important to their self-image—yet they often unknowingly act in prejudiced ways in scenarios where their prejudice is less overtly evident. Principled conservatives are those who have high explicit prejudice and low implicit prejudice because they truly value abstract conservative ideals, which cause them to dislike policies that stray from tradition. Finally, as the name suggests, truly low prejudiced people are those who truly have low explicit and implicit prejudice.

CQL | The Council on Quality and Leadership recently conducted a large-scale study with approximately 350,000 people to examine which form of modern ableism is the most common. To do so, we measured and compared people’s explicit and implicit prejudice and examined how different attitude types aligned.

Our findings revealed the overwhelming majority of people were prejudiced against people with disabilities. The most common form of prejudice amongst the 350,000 people was aversive ableism, where they consciously had little prejudice but unconsciously were prejudiced against people with disabilities.

Types of Modern Ableism

Ableism is not only extremely prominent, it also hinders the quality of life of people with disabilities. Unfortunately, most people are ableist but don’t even realize it! We have a lot more work to do to end disability prejudice.

This article is a summary of the following journal manuscript: Friedman, C. (2019). Mapping ableism: A two-dimensional model of explicit and implicit disability attitudes. Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, 8(3), 95-120.