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Understanding Awareness: Attitudes Toward Disability

By Carli Friedman, CQL Director of Research

Attitudes are often complex and multi-faced – they can occur on conscious and unconscious levels. Factors that may impact ones’ attitudes include personal experiences, internalization of society’s prejudices, the ways the concept is understood and relationships to the concept.

The aim of this study was to explore the relationship between how people understand disability and the values they hold towards it – their attitudes. The study also examined what factors can impact how people understand disability. To do so, subjects participated in an activity that measured their unconscious and conscious disability attitudes. They also answer questions about how they define disability and about their demographics.

Participants Understood Disability In The Following Ways:

  • Preventing or slowing action
  • Atypical function
  • Lack of independence
  • In relation to the norm
  • As impairment
  • Socially constructed
  • As a general difference

According to the findings, there was a relationship between unconscious attitudes and defining disability as lacking independence, in relation to the norm, or as impairment. Findings suggest people who define disability in relation to the norm have slightly more prejudiced attitudes than people who define disability as lacking independence, or impairment. However, people who define disability in any of these ways are still expected to have unconscious prejudice against people with disabilities.

We also found a relationship between the length of time participants had worked in the disability field and their understanding of disability. People who have never worked in the disability field or have worked in it for a short time are more likely to understand disability negatively as preventing or slowing actions/tasks. Meanwhile, the longer someone works in the disability field, the more likely they are to understand disability as simply a general difference – a form of human variation. This finding indicates more experience with people with disabilities may lead to more complex and multifaceted understandings of disability.

Odds of Defining Disability As Simply A General Difference

This article is a summary of the following journal manuscript: Friedman, C., & Owen, A. L. (2017). Defining disability: Understandings of and attitudes towards ableism and disability. Disability Studies Quarterly, 37(1).