School children's attitudes towards the handicapped

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  • jooumal of Adolescence 1984, 7, 99-117

    School childrens attitudes towards the handicapped


    This study set out to determine the attitude of a group of normal British 13-year-old school children towards handicapped people while avoiding problems of previous research. As has been shown in previous studies it was demonstrated that the childrens attitudes to the physically handicapped were more positive than those towards the mentally handicapped. Whereas there were very few sex differences indicating that males were more negative to the handicapped in general than females, there were a number of contact differences. Children who knew or interacted with a handicapped person were by-and-large more positive in their attitudes than those who had little or no contact with handicapped people. The results of this study are discussed in terms of the integration of handicapped and non-handicapped school children.


    Legislation, both in Britain and the United States of America, has recently attempted to encourage more integration between disabled/handicapped people and normal non disabled/handicapped people (Altman, 1981; Warnock, 1978). In Britain an act was passed in the mid 1970s to the effect that handicapped pupils in England and Wales were to be educated in ordinary, as opposed to special, schools (Warnock, 1978).

    Warnock (1978) emphasized the importance of the contribution of parents, non-teacher professionals, teachers, doctors and the general public in the successful integration and progress of the handicapped children. Likewise Altman (1981) highlighted the importance of various groups with regards to their attitudes towards the handicapped. She argues that there are three different levels of personal interaction with individuals whose attitudes affect the handicapped persons self-concept and degree of socialization. The levels are firstly in their relationships with peers and significant others such as family or close friends; secondly in their interaction with professionals such as doctors, social workers, teachers, councillors and employers who are the

    Reprint requests should be directed to Dr Adrian Furnham. Department of Psychology. Iniversity College London, 26 Bedford Way, London \VCr

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    important elements in influencing their life direction; and thirdly in their relation to the general public whose reaction to their presence in public places is part of their evervday life experiences.

    \Yarnock (19$3),- because of her primary interest in the education of handicapped children, acknowledges the importance of the primary level mentioned by Altman (1981). She states that the attitudes of other children in the school will affect the success of arrangements for those Lvith disabilities or significant difficulties. She also stresses the point that other pupils should be helped to understand that while having special needs handicapped children are in other respects no different from themselves. Bv this she acknowledges that close friends and peers play an important role in the acceptance or rejection at school which in turn criticallv affect the success or failure of any integration scheme.

    Though the official policy has long been moving away from special and institutional care for the disabled, towards the ideal of Integration in the community, a recent study by M:eir (1981) indicates that public feelings are far less sympathetic than one would hope. He investigated the percentage of population in agreement with the \Varnock (1978) recommendation that physically and mentally handicapped children should as far as possible be educated in normal schools. The results sho\ved onlv ~4 per cent agreement . . for the mentall?; handicapped whereas agreement for the physicall> handicapped averaged higher at 71 per cent. He also found that middle-class individuals were more biased towards integration than working-class people. The survey produced the conclusion that far more work had to be done in putting across the case for integration.

    There is a farily considerable literature on childrens attitudes towards the handicapped (Altman, 198 I). l-he research methods carried out so far on childrens attitudes towards the handicapped have mainly been picture ranking and sociometric analyses. There have been problems with both these procedures.

    The picture ranking experiment, s have been found to lack subtletv (Matthews and Westie, 1966) and to elicit reaction to the condition rather than to the individual who has this condition. \Yhiteman and Lukoff (1965) have shown that attitudes towards a handicapping condition are more negative than attitudes towards single individuals who exhibit these handicaps. More negative attitudes were found in conjunction with handicaps that were most threatening to the childrens self-concept. For example boys showed greater concern with functional limitations of arms and legs and g&s responded more to appearance defects. nIenta1 handicap is considered more threatening to the self than physical handicap and hence is treated more negatively (Freed, 1964).

    Sociometric and contact studies have also been widely used in the analysis

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    of normal subjects reaction to mentally retarded individuals, as this relates to

    the debate as to whether special classes or integration into normal schools provides the best education system for these children. Extensive work in this area has produced contradictory and equivocal findings, where for Instance Johnson (1950) and Rucker, Howe and Snider (1969) found that retarded children were rejected more than non retarded children, Lapp (1957) found no significant difference at all. However to summarize the sociometric and contact studies it seems that regardless of the educational model (e.g. integration, separated resource rooms) handicapped children are not as well accepted as the non handicapped children though it does seem that contact marginally leads to more positive attitudes.

    Self-report questionnaires, though by far the most popular technique for attitude assessment generally (Ahman, 1981) have not been widely used in childrens attitude assessment. The majority of these self-report studies focused on different aspects of attitudes towards disabled people; affective components of beliefs; social distance responses; and ranking of types of handicaps. Two independent variables have consistently shown to drfferen- tiate between various attitudes towards disabled people. The degree of contact with disabled people is a variable which has the usual and predictable result that closer contact leads to more positive attitudes. However the definition of this contact and its effects on attitudes is still somewhat unclear (Gaier, Linkowski and Jacques, 1968).

    A second variable that appears to influence attitudes towards disabled people is sex differences with females expressing more favourable opinions than men (Siller and Chipman, 1964; Greenbaum and IYang, 1965). Age, education and socio-economic level differences however did not appear to influence attitudes towards the disabled (Altman, 198 I).

    The problems of these self report studies are clearly outlined in Altman (1981) who places them into five categories: subject samples are unrepresen- tative of the population (high school, university students teachers or social workers); lack of a unified definition for the concept of contact (duration, type, etc.); the multidimensionality of the attitudes towards disabled people is often ignored and unidimensronal interpretations produced; social desirability may produce biases in peoples responses; and finally and probably most importantly the ambiguity of the attitude object (i.e. the handicapped person). Any label given to the attitude object might produce the stereotyped response which is not an adequate measure of the true attitudes.

    The aim of this study was to investigate the attitudes of school children towards the mentally and physically handicapped, using a self-report questionnaire technique, which hopefully avoided the problems outlined by Altman (1981) and Furnham and Pendred (1983).


    Previous studies would suggest that attitudes would be more sympathetic to physical rather than mental, and non-observable rather than observable, handicaps. Murphy, Dickstein and Dripps (1960) compared different disabilities: crippling, sensory and brain related handicaps and found more negative attitudes to the brain related or mental handicaps. Freed (1964) using the Yuker, Block and Campbell (1960) Attitudes Towards The Disabled Persons Scale (ATDP) found that attitudes towards mental handicap were more negative than those to alcoholism and physical handicap. Also physical handicap was regarded better than alcoholism. More recently Furnham and Pendred (1983) using an adult sample found that the mentally handicapped were viewed more negatively than physically handicapped. Thus it is predicted that the physically handicapped will be regarded more positively than the mentally handicapped.

    There is however some debate as to whether the observability of a handicap alters the attitudes of individuals. Previous studies have illustrated more negative attitudes towards observable handicaps compared with unobserv- able handicaps (Antonak, 1980; Altman, 1981), but Furnham and Pendred (1983) detected no difference. Hence it was hypothesised that the difference, if any, would illustrate negative attitudes towards the observable handicaps due to its increased threatening quality (Antonak, 1980; Altman, 1981).

    In accordance with previous studies (Greenbaum and Wang, 1965; Weir, 1981) an overall sex difference is predicted with females expressing more favourable attitudes than males.

    Finally, the degree of contact is thought to affect attitudes whereby increased direct, equal status, contact will produce more positive attitudes in individuals. This study attempted to deal with the problems that this independent variable causes (Linowski, Jacques and Gaier, 1969) and hypothesizes that a high degree of contact will improve peoples attitudes towards the handicapped.



    There were 135 subjects of whom I I I were female and 34 were male. The subject samples were taken from two schools; a primarily middle-class grammar and a primarily working-class comprehensive school. Their ages were between 13 and 14 years, the majority being 13 years. None of the children was handicapped in any way.


    Each of the subjects was given a 31 item scale which divided into three sections.

    (i) Items referring to what a handicapped child can and cannot do.


    (ii) Items related to what handicapped children are like. (iii) Items enquiring as to what causes the handicap.

    The scale used was an adaptation from the Yuker et al. (1960) ATDP questionnaire. It was modified initially by making the original 20 questions more applicable and comprehensible to children. Then extra questions were added that specifically investigated attitudes about handicap causation and the abilities of handicapped children in and out of school.

    A pilot study was performed to establish what types of handicap were known by children aged IO to 14 years. This was done by asking children to list as many handicaps as possible, what it prevented a person from doing and what caused it. Extra items were based on this pilot study.

    It was from the better known ones that the four handicaps were chosen for the main questionnaire. These handicaps were also required to fit the criteria of completely separate categories, in accordance with the H code for

    handicaps (Grossiord and Wood, 1974) and be grouped into physical or mental and observable or unobservable. Hence the disablements chosen for the four conditions were deafness, mongolism, paralysis and retardation.

    After completing the 3 I item scale, subjects were requested to indicate how much contact they had had with handicapped individuals; to specify the type of handicap; the length or type of acquaintance, the regularity of contact and the age or sex of the handicapped individual. From this information it was possible to group subjects into those who had little or no contact with, or knowledge of, the handicapped and those who had fairly considerable and regular contact.


    The school children were randomly given any one of the four question- naires (each specifying one type of handicap) so that approximately 34 people completed each questionnaire. The questionnaire took about 25 to 30 min to complete and the subjects remained anonymous. The children were specifically asked to respond honestly. The questionnaire was administered bv class teachers in school time. The subjects appeared to have no problem weith the task and were later debriefed.

    Three separate analyses were performed on the data.

    (I) Physicallmental and obse~~ablelunobserr~able differences

    First a two-way (2 X 2) (physical/mental; observable/unobservable) ANOVA was computed on each of the 31 items. It revealed a significance of the physical/mental effect (total scores) with subjects being more favourable towards the physically handicapped than the mentally handicapped.


    However, no significance was found for the observable/unobservable effect. Table I shows the means and F levels for each of the items across the four groups. Ten of the 31 physical/mental effects were significant, and the majority went in the same dtrection.

    As regards items referring to what handicapped children can and cannot do, subjects believed that children with physical handicaps could go to ordinary schools, do as well in work as normal school children and would have higher expectations than mentally handicapped children.

    Only three of the 12 items that referred to what handicapped children are like were significant. The subjects believed that physically disabled children would make better friends, have nicer parties and be less ugly than mentally disabled children.

    The significant items illustrating beliefs of handicap causation demon- strated that whereas mental handicap was considered congenital, physical handicap was believed to be more accident orientated.

    (2) Type of h d p an ica r-et-ses knowledge of a handicap perso?!

    Secondly a two-way (4 x z) (deafness, paralysis, mongolism or retardation

    vs. knowledge or no knowledge of a handicapped person) ANOVA was carried out on each of the 31 items. It revealed a number of significant

    effects-attitudes were more positive towards deafness and paralysis than to mongolism and retardation, and that knowledge of a handicapped person produced more favourable beliefs about handicaps in general.

    Table 2 show...


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