PROMOTING POSITIVE ATTITUDES TOWARD PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES
Prof. Dr. Nasir Sulman
Department of Special Education
University of Karachi
It is our feelings with which we must deal our attitudes, fears, and frustrations about the handicapped about something that is a little different. We can give skills and competencies, but our attitudes affect the delivery of them. The research found that ‘such attitudes partly reflect fears that supporting those with disabilities in mainstream schools, workplaces and life activities requires resources which may not be available due to our difficult economic times.’
Meaning of Attitudes
Attitudes are a complex collection of beliefs, feelings, values and dispositions which characterize the way we think or feel about certain people or situations. People’s attitudes are a product of life experiences, including the relationships we build with the people around us. For example, a person’s attitudes towards one disabled person might be shaped by their personal experience of knowing another disabled person. And these attitudes often affect the way people behave in particular situations or towards other people.
Attitudes are transient and change from person to person, from group to group, and even within groups over time. Nonetheless we do tend to see patterns in people’s attitudes. People with shared characteristics or common social experiences may well develop similar attitudes towards disabled people or disability in general.
There is a growing body of evidence to indicate that disabled people are more likely than people who aren’t disabled to experience the attitudes of others as a major barrier to education, leisure, transport, access to public services, social contact and accessibility outside the home. Understanding the prevalence of positive and negative attitudes and which groups of people hold them is crucial if we want to understand how to improve public attitudes.
Negative attitudes tend to be a societal response toward disability and persons with disabilities. Pervasive social and cultural norms, standards and expectations often lead to the creation of negative attitudes. Among the frequently mentioned contributing factors are: an emphasis on concepts such as “body beautiful,” “body whole,” and “athletic prowess”. Other contributing factors include an emphasis on personal productiveness and achievement where individuals are judged on their ability to be socially and economically competitive. The “sick role” phenomenon can also lead to negative attitudes because the occupant of the “sick role” is typically seen as exempt from normal societal obligations and responsibilities. In general, it’s an overwhelming categorization and status of degradation attached to disability.
The most powerful attitudes are those paradigms that define entire cultures. Segregated schools for children with disabilities are declining in all over the globe. Also, as a result of disability-rights legislation that began in the 1960’s. Since then, the disability rights movement has followed the civil rights movement to astonishing legislative success.
In Western culture, disability is often used as a symbol for sin and portrayed as punishment for it in this life. Similarly, in Eastern cultures disability is often assumed to reflect punishment for wickedness in a previous incarnation. In contrast, there are those who realize that accidents do happen or believe the spiritual idea that a developing soul may choose a disabled body to allow them to deepen their compassion towards others who are suffering.
There are several different models used to portray disability within the framework of developing attitudes. A traditional medical model emphasizes disability as illness and the person with a disability is portrayed as passive and dependent on health professionals and other well-meaning people. More progressive models, such as the cultural pluralism model, depict a person with a disability as multifaceted individual whose disability is just one personal trait among many.
Prevailing societal attitudes impact children from an early age. Specifically, negative attitudes toward children with disabilities are formed from strong cultural influences such as school, the media, our language and literature. The nature of the problem is that negative attitudes have been shown to present barriers to inclusion, and seem to be correlated with an adverse effect on the social, emotional, and intellectual development of children with disabilities.
A review of the literature confirms that considerable prejudice exists among school-aged children. It appears that students without disabilities tend to have less than favorable attitudes toward students with disabilities, and that stereotype are often at the core of these negative attitudes. Studies have also demonstrated that contact between disabled and non-disabled peers has improved negative attitudes. The rejection of students with cognitive disabilities has also been documented in a large number of studies. Students with mild cognitive disabilities are accepted less frequently than their non-disabled peers. Similar trends of rejection have also been documented with students with learning disabilities. Students with emotional disabilities have also been reported to be more socially isolated and to have lower self-concepts than their nondisabled peers.
Children tend to be afraid of the unfamiliar. However, once children have the opportunity to interact and be educated with children with disabilities they will be exposed to a variety of differences and common fears can be overcome. Implementing programs to influence the acceptance of peers with disabilities at an early age is critical to the program’s success. Research has shown that young children, including preschoolers, are aware of disabilities and favor non-disabled peers. Thus, it appears that negative attitudes develop early, and that these attitudes tend to be consistently predisposed across disabilities. In order to achieve success in efforts to change negative attitudes, educators must be willing to face these prejudices head on. There are several factors influencing negative attitudes.
The first strong cultural influence is SCHOOL. The schools through their model of labeling and segregation often provided the bases of negative attitudes. Students viewed as different were banished, denied access, and received negatively loaded labels, which in turn, caused guilt, pain, and shame. Once labeled, they were treated as being somehow less than the others [due to being perceived as more different than the same].
A second strong cultural influence is the MEDIA. Children’s attitudes can be shaped by the words they hear or read. Keller, Hallahan, McShane, Crowley, and Blandford conducted a national study of American newspapers and found that “48% of the references that described disabilities had negative impact, while only 1% had a positive impact” (cited in Blaska, 1991). In broadcast and print media, communication about people with disabilities has often reflected either attitudes of helplessness or heroism.
The third strong cultural influence is the LANGUAGE USED to refer to persons with disabilities. The words or phrases one chooses to use when referring to persons with disabilities is a very subtle one. However, when one considers that language is a primary means of communicating attitudes, thoughts, and feelings the elimination of words and expressions that stereotype become an essential part of creating an inclusive environment.
The final strong cultural influence is LITERATURE. Even as children, many first encounters with literature include stereotyped characters such as childish dwarfs and the hump-backed wicked witch in Snow White, the evil giant in Jack and the Beanstalk, or the sly deformed dwarf, Rumpelstillskin. Such images lead children to believe that people with physical or mental differences are to be feared, pitied, trivialized or ridiculed.
Consequently, negative attitudes can result in missed opportunities for children with disabilities to participate in valuable socializing experiences throughout their development. This may then be followed by feelings of decreased self-determination, or the loss of the “right” to have control over one’s life. Furthermore, teaching children to be tolerant of the differences of others is a worthwhile venture because all children have the right to attend school without having to feel inferior. A question was posed, “how can a child develop a positive self-concept if he or she is constantly receiving messages that he or she is laughable, pitiable, sad, abnormal, unfortunate and valueless”. Also, strengthening social ties between peers with disabilities and those without helps affirm beliefs of similarity. Such identity work facilitates congruence between self-perception and social identity.
In summary, negative attitudes toward children with disabilities are formed from strong cultural influences such as school, the media, our language and literature. The nature of the problem is that negative attitudes have been shown to present a barrier to inclusion, and seem to be correlated with an adverse effect on the social, emotional, and intellectual development of these children. Based on previous studies, it would seem that only when those children who exhibit negative attitudes become aware of the effects of their negative feelings do they develop a desire for change. Through a combination of education and positive experiences with children with disabilities, it is hoped that children and educators alike will become aware of the effects of disablism, thus increasing empathic understanding toward children with disabilities.
Early attempts at attitude change often focused on increasing the amount of contact between people with and without disabilities. It was believed that the attitudes of people without disabilities would become more positive if they merely had more contact with people with disabilities. However, contact increased acceptance but did not increase the perception of competence. Research investigating the effectiveness of disability simulations on fourth-graders discovered some interesting findings. It is possible that the children in the study did develop a sense of what it is like to be disabled and did not enjoy what they experienced. The negative change in attitudes may reflect a degree of understanding of what it means to be disabled without any attendant empathy or concern for the disabled. Furthermore, during the simulation activity, several of the subjects reported either a fear of being teased, or actually were teased. Embarrassment, rather than empathy, could have been the predominant emotion felt.
Suggestions for improving research on attitudes, in general and on simulations of disabilities in particular, have been offered. First, a clear definition of the term attitude and selection of appropriate measures of assessing the different components of attitudes are needed. It’s recommended that a multidimensional assessment approach be used rather than the traditional unidimensional approach. Second, the term empathy needs to be clearly defined and differentiated from attitude. More research is needed in regard to the relationships between role-playing and attitude change.
Inclusion in the schools can have many benefits for both students with and without disabilities. Inclusion helps those students without disabilities develop the skills they need to effectively deal with others who are different from them. Inclusion also gives all students the opportunity to become friends with one another and is an important component to successful integration into the community in the future. One way to do this is through planned social contact. Planned social contact can result in the development of positive relationships and increased empathy between peers with and without disabilities.
Public attitudes have an impact on the material and non-material aspects of everyone’s living standards, and disabled people in particular. At Scope, we believe that we won’t see structural changes that improve disabled people’s living standards without tackling attitudinal change at the same time.