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When it Comes to Disability, What Do Siblings Think?

By Carli Friedman, CQL Director of Research

Siblings of people with disabilities have a unique relationship to disability, as they have more connectedness to people with disabilities, and often have more intimate relationships because of being a sibling. Although research has examined sibling closeness and involvement, less research has focused on how being a sibling to someone with a disability can impact siblings’ attitudes, including if and how they are ableist – prejudiced against people with disabilities.

Attitudes occur on two levels: conscious (explicit) and unconscious (implicit). Because people are able to conceal their true attitudes, or may not be aware of their unconscious attitudes, it is important to examine both levels of attitudes when studying prejudice. In fact, it is not uncommon for people’s conscious and unconscious attitudes to misalign. Most people have higher levels of unconscious bias than conscious bias, called aversive ableism, because of the internalization of societal attitudes and norms, and the ways the brain processes and categorizes people into groups.

The aim of this study was to examine siblings’ conscious and unconscious attitudes towards disability. The study particularly wanted to see the relationships between their conscious and unconscious attitudes – how they aligned. To do so,approximately 50 people were recruited who had at least one sibling with disabilities to complete an activity that measured their unconscious attitudes (the Disability Attitudes Implicit Association Test (Nosek et al., 2007)) and conscious attitudes (the Symbolic Ableism Scale (Friedman & Awsumb, 2019)). Participants also answered questions about themselves and their relationship with their sibling with a disability.

Unconscious Disability Attitudes of Siblings

Findings revealed that although the majority of siblings in the study had low levels of conscious disability prejudice, they had high levels of unconscious disability prejudice – most participants were aversive ableists. However, siblings in this study still had lower prejudice on average than previous research with different groups of people, such as nurses or students. They also appeared to be less biased than the general population. Moreover, approximately one-third of participants scored as truly low prejudiced. Therefore, the finding that siblings have unconscious prejudice against people with disabilities should not be interpreted as a problem with siblings themselves, but as reflecting a more complex problem: internalization of ableist values from society. In fact, siblings’ unique relationship with disability may help counteract some of these social norms about negative views of disability.


  • Friedman, C., & Awsumb, J. (2019). The Symbolic Ableism Scale. The Review of Disability Studies: An International Journal, 15(1).
  • Nosek, B. A., Smyth, F. L., Hansen, J. J., Devos, T., Lindner, N. M., Ranganath, K. A., … Banaji, M. R. (2007). Pervasiveness and correlates of implicit attitudes and stereotypes. European Review of Social Psychology, 1(1), 1–53. doi:10.1080/10463280701489053

This article is a summary of the following journal manuscript: Friedman, C. (2017). Siblings of people with disabilities’ explicit and implicit disability attitude divergence. Journal of Social Work in Disability & Rehabilitation, 16(1), 74-92.