Attitudes Toward Disability: The Relationship Between Attitudes Toward Disability and Frequency of Interaction with People with Disabilities (PWD) Public Deposited


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  • The social and medical models of disability are sets of underlying assumptions explaining people's beliefs about the causes and implications of disability. The medical model is the predominant model in the United States that is associated with the belief that disability is an undesirable status that needs to be cured (Darling & Heckert, 2010). This model focuses on the diagnosis, treatment and curative efforts related to disability. The social model is preferred by disability activists and researchers which focuses on society’s involvement in disability, such as stigmatization, discrimination and the interpersonal barriers that are features of one’s disability. The social model suggests that society disables individuals and is the cause of impairment (Olkin, 2003). Allport’s contact hypothesis states that increased contact with people with disabilities (PWD) will reduce prejudice through relationship building and social connection (Allport, 1954). Pettigrew’s Intergroup Contact Theory, similar to Allport’s contact hypothesis, argues that essential conditions must be met in order to reduce feelings of prejudice. These conditions are: learning about the outgroup, changing behavior, generating affective ties, and ingroup reappraisal (Pettigrew, 1998). Based on these theories, increased interaction with PWD should result in more favorable attitudes about PWD. We further propose that contact may serve to alter disability model orientation, which in turn may affect attitudes. This is the first large-scale study that examines how disability models influence the relationship between contact and attitudes toward PWD. It was hypothesized that participants with more frequent interactions with PWD would have more favorable attitudes towards disability. This would be mediated by models of disability. Participants of the study were undergraduate students enrolled in a required university course, with a majority of them being in their first year. The survey consisted of the Attitudes Toward Disabled Persons scale, a single item assessing frequency of contact with PWD, and the Darling (2013) social and medical model scales, and was distributed to a total of 1,506 students. Supporting our hypothesis, the medical and social models partially mediated the relationship between contact and attitudes towards disability. Medical model compared to social model was more strongly associated with contact and attitudes. This suggests that contact with PWD can help decrease medical model beliefs in general, but is less effective at promoting social model beliefs. Implications of this study might suggest that more frequent contact with PWD on college campuses could be possible by hiring more educators who disclose their disability or accommodate to more people with disabilities as students. As for future directions of this study, an expansion beyond college students could provide insight into different demographics and their attitudes toward disability, and could also reveal the potential influence of cohort effects. Future studies may also want to further assess to what degree attitudes and perceptions about PWD change when certain conditions are met, such as those mentioned in Pettigrew’s Intergroup Contact Theory.
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