Social Theory and Research on Public Attitudes Toward People with Disabilities

Douglas Klayman, Ph.D., Marilia Mochel, M.A., Social Dynamics, LLC


The most far-reaching federal legislation targeting people with disabilities is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. Title I of the ADA prohibits employment discrimination in recruiting, hiring, promoting, training, pay, social activities, inequities in the provision of employee benefits, and other privileges of employment (US Department of Justice, 2005). While the ADA regulates some of the tangible aspects of the work environment, employment and earnings data and studies on employer hiring practices provide clear evidence that regulatory policies have not resolved the challenges people with disabilities face in the labor market. In this Issue Brief, we discuss contradictory findings from public surveys and qualitative experimental research on attitudes toward people with disabilities (PWD). These disparities indicate that the overwhelmingly positive findings from attitudinal survey research may not accurately reflect the attitudes of the non-disabled, toward people with disabilities. This issue brief introduces a theoretical framework that identifies the causes and consequences of attitude formation and change, and a multi-dimensional approach to attitudinal research to more accurately characterize public opinion on PWD.


Despite the positive findings from public surveys on attitudes toward people with disabilities, many disabled workers suffer discrimination and prejudice in the work place. Social scientists often describe the impact of these challenges by calculating the marginal effect of certain individual characteristics on annual income. For example, the marginal effect of racial/ethnic minority status of African American males in the United States is approximately 72%, meaning that they earn on average 28% less than White males (-28%). The marginal effect on earnings for people with disabilities is -23%, relative to non-disabled workers, and another -17% for minorities with disabilities, relative to their non-minority counterparts (Santiago and Muschkin, 2006). In addition, due to limitations in opportunities for human capital development, the existence of workplace prejudice and discrimination, and disabling functional impairments (Colella, 2001; Louvet, 2007; Schur, Kurse & Blanck ., 2005; Wooten & James, 2005), people with disabilities have a much higher rate of poverty than the general working-age population (U.S. Census, 2007. When they join the workforce, they are disproportionately allocated to low-wage (secondary) labor market positions, thus perpetuating occupational inequality and a bifurcated labor market (Charles & Grusky, 2008).


The low socioeconomic status of persons with disability may be related to the intangible factors that regulatory guidelines are unable to change. According to the National Council on Disability (2007), “the barriers [people with disabilities face in the labor market] remain primarily attitudinal.” As negative attitudes lead to reductions in social capital (i.e., the informal relations between individuals and groups that provide a sense of belonging to the civic community, social cohesion among group members, positive attitudes toward civic engagement, and access to intra and inter-group networks). Limitations on social capital acquisition decrease economic and occupational mobility (Benn, 2000; Putnam, 1993), which is linked to a variety of social exclusion devices (SED), including ethnocentrism, group closure, and disproportionate resource allocation(MacDonald, 2007).

The purpose of an SED is to maximize the social status of dominant in-groups by restricting access to the social and human capital necessary to facilitate economic and occupational mobility.[1] Dominant groups establish and reaffirm their identity by excluding non-members and defining the normative (acceptable) characteristics of their group. SEDs also place restrictions on social and economic relationships between members of dominant groups and non-dominant groups and limit the extent to which people with disabilities can develop social capital through bridging with well-connected groups or bonding within their own cultural enclave (Orr, 2005). Racial/ethnic minorities with disabilities are multiply disadvantaged due their membership in both a racial/ethnic group and a specific disability group, the latter being characterized by the type and severity of their disability, and the timing of disability onset.

According to the 2007 U.S. Census, racial and ethnic minorities are more likely than Caucasian and Asian families to have at least one member with a disability. The percentages of families with at least one member with a disability among Caucasian non-Hispanics is 27.1%; for Asian families the percentage if 26.5%. The percentage among minority families is:

  • American Indians and Alaskan Natives 38.5%,
  • African Americans 35.7%,
  • Hispanics (of any race) 33.2%, and
  • Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders 33.1%. (United States Census Bureau, 2007).

The disproportionate representation of people with disabilities among racial and ethnic minorities suggests that minority workers with disabilities may suffer elevated prejudice and discrimination relative to non-minorities people with disabilities. In order to be successful in the labor market, people with disabilities must surmount social-structural and attitudinal barriers to employment that restrict economic and occupational mobility, the development of human and social capital, and a labor market that steers out-group members toward less demanding/lucrative positions (Freedman & Fesko, 1996; Hernandez, 2000) and occasionally limits their access to necessary workplace accommodations (Colella, 2001).


Many studies have looked into how contact with people with disabilities affects the attitudes of the non-disabled. Although the results have been mixed (Yuker, 1988), there is evidence that professional groups with greater exposure to people with disabilities (i.e., health professionals) have more positive attitudes than other professional groups (Pernice & Lys, 1996; Snowden, 1997). However, these findings raise questions about whether this difference is due to contact or self-selection of these individuals into certain professions. In other words, it may be argued that health professionals make their career choices precisely because they are more open to contact with people with disabilities than those who choose to work in unrelated occupations. Still, there are studies suggesting that contact with people with severe disabilities produces a negative impact. In fact, some studies have shown that contact may actually lead to more negative attitudes (Braff & Nealon, 1982; Murray & Chambers, 1991).

Programs that attempt to change attitudes toward people with disabilities have generally relied on intergroup contact theory, which emphasizes the positive impact of out-group contact on in-group attitudes toward out-groups. Among interventional programs, there is some evidence that programs that provide accurate information can bring about change in attitudes toward people with disabilities. Lindgren and Oermann (Lindgren & Oermann, 1993; Oermann &  Lindgren, 1995) found that a 1-day rehabilitation-education conference had a lasting impact on participants’ attitudes, even one year after the intervention. This one-day seminar included brief contact with individuals with disabilities and rehabilitation professionals, and lessons about caring for people with disabilities. Zahn and Kelly’s (1995) intervention involved only a videotape about individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing as role models in several employment settings. This treatment produced an improvement in attitudes among the undergraduate students who watched the video. Similarly, a presentation about people with disabilities emphasizing disability types, statistics about disability in the United States, the ADA, and barriers to the employment of people with disabilities was shown to positively affect 190 business students (Hunt & Hunt, 2004).  On the other hand, a 2-day awareness training program in Ireland, co-presented by a person with disabilities, found only a small, non-significant improvement in attitudes (Timms, McHugh, O’Carroll & James, 1997). 

Berrol (1984) compared the impact of three types of intervention on physical education students. Berrol’s (1984) findings suggest that programs that combine information about disabilities with controlled contact with people with disabilities produce a more positive impact on attitudes relative to programs that offer either information or direct contact. There seems to be a building consensus among researchers that interventions such as Berrol’s are the most effective and long-lasting in changing attitudes toward people with disabilities (Lee & Rodda, 1994; Seccombe, 2007). These researchers contend that information alone is not enough to improve and affect long-lasting attitude change; contact is critical to maintaining the gains in positive attitudes toward people with disabilities.

Goddard and Jordan (1998) conducted a quasi-experimental intervention to assess the impact of a sensitivity lab on nursing students’ attitudes toward persons with disabilities. The intervention was shown to improve attitude scores, both immediately following the intervention, and 6 weeks after the experiment. Similarly, a disability awareness activity in a Virginia school for the deaf and the blind that included a cooperative simulation challenge also produced positive results among specialized personnel (Peterson & Quarstein, 2001).

Krahe and Altwasser (2006) compared the results of a cognitive exercise and a behavioral intervention among ninth graders in Germany.  The cognitive exercise consisted of a thought experiment that involved questioning stereotypical attitudes regarding physical disabilities. The behavioral exercise combined the cognitive activity with contact with individuals with disabilities in a cooperative activity: playing sports with athletes with disabilities. The students in the sports group treatment condition resulted in the greatest improvement in attitudes toward people with physical disabilities, both following the intervention and at 3-month follow-up. The cognitive experiment treatment group (did not include the behavioral exercise) performed better than the control group that did not receive any intervention.

Finally, Daruwalla and Darcy (2005) conducted a study about changing attitudes toward people with disabilities among professionals in the tourism industry in Australia. In the first part of their study, the authors split 175 students into two groups. One group received only a lecture and video intervention, while the other group received a lecture, video, role-playing activity, and controlled contact with people with disabilities. The intervention for the second group was found to have a much larger impact on attitudes. In the second part of the study, the authors subjected a group of tourism professionals to a program that included information on people with disabilities and direct contact. After the intervention, participants showed significant change in attitudes.  However, a one-month follow-up revealed that the change was only temporary. The authors suggest that training programs be reinforced periodically, preferably using individuals with disabilities with the same socioeconomic background as the target group.


        The telephone survey is the method of choice for much of the quantitative literature on attitudes toward people with disabilities. In the U.S., the Gallup Organization (Siperstein, Romano, Mohler & Parker, 2005); Kaiser Family Foundation (2004); Harris Polls (1998); Special Olympics (2003); and the Minnesota Department of Administration (2007) have conducted recent studies on public attitudes toward people with disabilities. A characteristic that is common across all of these studies is that they have reported overwhelmingly positive findings on public attitudes toward people with disabilities, without attempting to explain the current economic and occupational disadvantages typically experienced by people with disabilities.

        The most recent telephone survey in the U.S. was conducted by the Minnesota Department of Administration (2007). A random sample of 806 Minnesota heads of households expressed strong support for the integration of people with disabilities (60%) in the workplace, while 85% reported that they have “a lot of respect for companies that employ people with developmental disabilities”. Siperstein et al. (2005), using a random sample of 803, found that 92% of respondents reported feeling “more favorable” or “much more favorable” toward companies that hire people with disabilities, with women feeling significantly more positive about such companies than men. In contrast, the Kaiser Family Foundation (2004) found that 65% of respondents observed some prejudice and/or discrimination directed towards people with disabilities in the workplace, and over one half (52%) reported that the government is doing “too little” to protect people with disabilities in the  workplace from other forms of discrimination (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2004).

        Two Harris polls, conducted in 1995 and 2004, reported even more public support (85%) for the employment of workers with disabilities (National Organization on Disability, 2004). In these studies, 83% of respondents agreed that “If more people with disabilities had paid employment, it would reduce welfare payments, they would become productive taxpayers and everyone would benefit,” while only 12% agreed that it is “very expensive for employers to hire people with disabilities and not worth the extra cost” (Harris Poll, 1998).

        Whereas the survey research on attitudes toward people with disabilities presents a positive picture of the public’s support for the employment of people with disabilities, qualitative research on the same topic has identified substantive workplace prejudice and discrimination directed at workers with disabilities. For instance, in a review of nineteen studies on employment barriers, eight studies reported positive attitudes toward people with disabilities, while eleven revealed negative attitudes and consistent use of stereotypes that mischaracterized and marginalized workers with disabilities (Hernandez, 2000). Schur et al. (2005) found that non-disabled workers resented the use of workplace accommodations and often resorted to ego-defensive mechanisms (e.g. ostracize out-group members) to further marginalize disabled workers. Colella (2001) reported that negative attitudes occasionally influence employers to limit accommodations for employees with disabilities, in order to maintain a copacetic work environment. Colella’s (2001) findings are corroborated by Schur et al. (2005) who found that employees without disabilities are likely to perceive workplace accommodations as being unfair if they are thought to make the accommodated person’s work easier, another person’s job harder or less desirable, an unwarranted reward or perk, and/or an unnecessary use of scarce resources.

        Freedman and Fesko (1996) reported that stigma and discrimination by employers and employees are the most frequently reported barriers to long-term employment, in addition to discrimination with regard to task allocation policies, promotions, and job responsibilities.  Wooten and James (2005) cited “discriminatory organizational routines,” including harassment, an unwillingness to provide reasonable accommodations, lack of infrastructure to support employees with disabilities, and negative stereotypes, as barriers to long-term employment. Discrimination at the job interview phase also has been identified. Bell and Klein (2001), Scherbaum, Scherbaum & Popovich (2005), and Gouvier, Mayville & Sytsma-Jordan (2003) report more negative perceptions of job candidates with disabilities than those without disabilities among potential employers; while Louvet (2007) found that applicants with disabilities are judged more negatively when they apply for positions that involve face-to-face contact with customers.

        Discrimination in the work place is emanates from the social dynamics of group culture, including mores and folkways that allow dominant groups to subordinate people with disabilities. The theoretical framework presented in section 5 explains some of the causes of attitudinal formation and change.


The purpose of the social theory is to explain social dynamics in a way that generates a series of ontological premises that are based on empirical evidence in consideration of the relationship between social context and historical events. Within this context, the causes of attitudinal formation and change are functional-adjustment oriented ego-defense mechanisms and value or knowledge-oriented thoughts that manage and make sense of new information. For example, an unfavorable attitude may lead to the exclusion of a worker with a disability from the dominant group or culture. Likewise, feelings of inadequacy on the part of a dominant group member may be used to justify his or her social position relative to that of another. According to Katz (1960), attitude formation is caused by “the excitation of a need in the individual” as an ego-defense mechanism and/or knowledge orientation and management function. Attitude change is due to the process of social influence, resulting in compliance, identification, and/or internalization of a new attitude (Cohen, 1964). These processes are mediated by the importance of the subject matter underlying the attitude in question and the power of the influencing agent (i.e., workplace supervisor, experienced colleague).

As shown in Figure 1, prevailing cultural norms influence workplace culture to create definitions and labels of social acceptance or social deviance. In this way, workplace rules are established to provide the behavioral, affective, and cognitive elements of workplace culture and, as a result, assign stereotypes to those who appear to be socially and/or physically different, resulting in the stigmatization of people with disabilities.

Stigmas are social constructs that exist only within the context of a given set of social situations within a particular culture. Coworkers often respond to a stigmatized colleague with uneasiness, while the stigma becomes the “master status” of the worker with disabilities because it defines the stigmatized person’s sense of self, rather than her or his personality, intellect, and/or talents (Ainlay, Becker, & Coleman, 1986). The labeling process eventually manifests attitudinal and behavioral responses from in-group members, who often feel contempt toward out-group members because they violate the normative expectations of the in-group. In-group cohesion develops when cultural norms are challenged and reaffirmed by the mere existence of member of the out-group (Hammer & Thompson, 2003).

These processes are simultaneously influenced by the process of social adaptation on the part of workers with and without disabilities, in which workers without disabilities adapt to the work environment by extolling the virtues of in-group norms; some may even resort to ego-defense mechanisms in which a worker without disabilities projects anger toward a worker with disabilities. Workers with disabilities, by comparison, experience the psychological effects of stigmatization, which include depression, low self-esteem, and low productivity (Anderson, 1996). The negative attitudes of workers without disabilities become embedded in organizational norms through continuous observation and modeling (Bandura, 1997).

6. A Multi-Dimensional Approach to Survey Research

        The theoretical framework presented in Figure 1 illustrates the complexity of attitudinal research and the need for a multi-dimensional approach to the measurement of attitudes toward people with disabilities (Antonak & Livneh, 1988; Gething & Wheeler, 1992; Olson & Zanna, 1993; Thomas, Palmer, Coker-Juneau & Williams, 2003). Previous attitudinal research on people with disabilities focused primarily on the cognitive component of attitudes, often excluding the affective and behavioral components. Previous cognitively-oriented survey research has identified the positive thoughts and perceptions that non-disabled people have of people with disabilities. But in the context of the work environment, the cognitive component of an individual’s attitude may not be expressed via the affective and behavioral components, due to the overwhelming desire of in-group members to remain connected to the dominant culture. The survey items in Figure 2 demonstrate how attitudes are best measured multi-dimensionally, across the three attitudinal components: 1. Cognitive; 2. Affective; and 3. Behavioral.

  1. Cognitive component: “An individual’s ideas, thoughts, perceptions, beliefs, opinions, or mental conceptualizations;”

(Social Learning Theory)

  • Affective component: Reflects the amount of positive or negative feelings an individual has towards a target group (Antonak & Livneh, 1988);


  • Behavioral component: “Individual’s intent or willingness to behave in a certain manner” (Anderson, 1996; Cook, 1992).

(Functional Theory: Ego-Defense, Compliance)

        Figure 2 operationalizes the multi-dimensional approach to attitude formation and change. The cognitive element is measured by eliciting terms or phrases from respondents that represent a belief system that pertains to the subject matter of the question. The affective element is measured using a rating scale that allows respondents to attach a level of strength to the cognitive component, in the form of an emotion; and finally, the behavioral component is measured by survey items that ask respondents to report the extent to which they will perform a given behavior.

Figure 2: Multi-Dimensional Measurement of Consumer Attitudes

  • Cognitive:                     When you meet a person with a disability, what is the first thing that

                          comes to your mind?

  • Affective:      You mentioned earlier that you have worked with a person with a disability in the past 10 years. How would you rate the quality of this person’s work (5 point scale)?
  • Behavioral:   While shopping at a store, have you ever been helped by a person with a noticeable disability?

Please rate how satisfied you were with the service(s) you received from this person? (5 point scale)

  As a result of this experience, would you say that you are very likely, likely, unlikely or very unlikely to shop at this place of business in the future?


There are significant limitations to the existing research on public attitudes toward people with disabilities. Major factors behind this deficiency are the complexity of attitudes themselves and the attitudinal research that is designed to explore attitude formation and change. Much of the research we reviewed relies upon one or two-dimensional measures of attitudes as well as small and often non-probability samples, and a reliance on descriptive, rather than predictive, analyses that do not adequately explain the causal factors associated with negative attitudes toward people with disabilities. Disability researchers have expended considerable effort in refining validated attitudinal measures, yet none of the recent telephone surveys we reviewed used validated instruments, which would improve the comparability of research findings from multiple studies, reduce the need to replicate studies on public attitudes and ensure that findings are valid and reliable.

Interestingly, findings from the quantitative research on individual attitudes and the qualitative literature on barriers to employment are contradictory. Whereas the latter provides positive findings regarding public support for the inclusion of workers with disabilities and related disability policies, the former has identified negative attitudes among study subjects asked to rate job applicants with and without disabilities, health professionals’ attitudes toward working with patients with disabilities, and coworkers’ frustration and resentment of co-workers with disabilities’ workplace accommodations. This contradiction in research findings may be due to the limitation in how attitudes have been measured in previous survey research studies.

Future research should focus on the disparities between the socioeconomic status of people with disabilities and findings from multi-dimensional large-scale survey research studies that accurately reflect public attitudes and behaviors. This could be accomplished using a multidimensional approach that isolates variables that influence the formation of attitudes and explains attitudinal variability over time. A classification matrix that articulates a number of “disability profiles” based on several characteristics, not unlike the existing disability severity (or impairment) scales, although considerably more detailed, should be used to take into consideration the extensive diversity among people with disabilities and to determine how attitudes vary with changes in disability type and severity through the lens of a multi-dimensional definition of attitudes.

[1]Burchardt et al. (1999) defines social exclusion in terms of economic, social, and political activity (i.e. not being able to consume, at least up to some minimum level, the goods and services which are considered normal for the society: engaging in economically or socially valued activities; engaging in some collective effort to improve or protect the immediate or wider social or physical environment; and engaging in significant social interaction with family or friends (Burchardt et al., 1999).