Children's attitude to disabled people

Children’s increased contact with disabled people is associated with improved attitudes towards disabled people, which may reduce discrimination. 

This is one of the findings of a doctoral study conducted by Megan MacMillan, from University of Exeter Medical School. She is presenting her work today to the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society Social Psychology Section. The Conference is being held at the University of Exeter. 

Disabled people often experience negative attitudes and discrimination. This can be a barrier to participating in society and can lead to low self-esteem and depression. 

“Schools vary in the number of students with special educational needs and disability. We predicted that if children manage to make more contact with disabled people, better relationships are built,” Megan reported. 

Some 1520 children aged 7-16 completed a survey designed to assess their attitudes, contact, empathy, and anxiety towards disabled people. Megan found that increased direct contact reduces children’s anxiety, which in turn improves attitudes. Attitudes are improved even when children do not have direct contact with disabled people. Simply observing others interacting with disabled children or being aware that others are friends with them can improve attitudes. This ‘indirect contact’ reduces anxiety and increases empathy towards disabled people. 

Megan explained: “We have known for some time that integrating children with disabilities into the regular classroom can improve attitudes. What we have established here is just how much of a difference a greater presence in day-to-day life makes. The effort to improve attitudes is worthwhile as negative attitudes are often internalized. Improving attitudes can have long lasting effects and can help children with disabilities to succeed.”

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