Caring for Disability Family Events

Interaction with People With Disabilities Improves Kids’ Attitudes

A new study has shown that the more contact children and teens have with people with disabilities, the better the kids’ reactions and attitudes become.

The news is probably not surprising, but kids tend to absorb and process differences better, be they cultural, racial, sexually oriented, or disability-related, when the kids have a higher degree of contact with individuals and concepts different than they experience on a regular basis. The study, conducted by the University of Exeter Medical School in England, looked at a sample of 1,520 kids and teens aged 7 to 16.

The kids were asked about their views towards people with disabilities, their feelings of nervousness or awkwardness, and their level of contact with those who live with disabilities. The study showed that, not only did children with more exposure to individuals with disabilities experience less anxiety, their attitudes towards those living with disabilities improved markedly.

The study’s author, Megan McMillan, said, “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.”

In fact, the study demonstrated that the “contact” need not even be direct—that is, even children who have regular indirect contact, such as watching others interact with people with disabilities or having friends of friends who have disabilities, resulted in improved attitudes and lowered levels of anxiety.

McMillan went on to say, “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.”

Many people with disabilities suffer from feelings of inadequacy, depression and low self-esteem, which is partially born of discrimination, non-acceptance, and even bullying by those who fear those who are different, or who simply don’t know how to properly react. This study is the first step in realizing that the best way to battle this discrimination is through exposure and contact, which, in turn, breeds understanding.

The study’s findings are still considered preliminary and a work in progress, as they have not yet been published as a paper in a peer-reviewed journal. McMillan presented the study results in August 2013 at the British Psychological Society Annual Conference, which was hosted by the University of Exeter.

Communities across America are encouraging interaction between able-bodied children and children with disabilities by building playgrounds accessible to all, like the one you’ll see in the video. What are some other ways that would enable children to interact with people with disabilities of all ages?