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  • The online Community for people with spinal cord injury, their relatives and friends

  • The online Community for people with spinal cord injury, their relatives and friends

  • The online Community for people with spinal cord injury, their relatives and friends

How are people in the wheelchair perceived?

Authors of summary: Carolina Ballert, Sibylle Graf, Felix Gradinger, Alexander Lötscher, Christine Muff, and Jan D. Reinhardt (Swiss Paraplegic Research)
Original article: Reinhardt JD, Ballert CS, Fellinghauer B, Lötscher A, Gradinger F, Hilfiker R, Graf S, Stucki G. Visual perception and appraisal of persons with impairments: A randomized controlled field experiment using photo elicitation. Disability and Rehabilitation. 2011;33(5):441-52.

People in the wheelchair are clearly rated more negatively than pedestrians, even with respect to attributes such as intelligence or diligence. Personal contact with people with disabilities and raising awareness about this topic may, however, contribute to the reduction of prejudices.

What was the aim of this study?

In order to guarantee equal opportunities for wheelchair users, the perception of disability in our society needs to be understood and potential prejudices need to be recognized. How are people with visible disabilities such as wheelchair users actually perceived? How are they rated as people and which role do the visually obvious characteristics of their disability play? Researcher have picked up on these questions and carried out a field study which is presented in this article.

How did the researchers proceed?

In order to examine the visual perception of wheelchair users, the research group asked a total of 100 people from the general Swiss population. The survey participants were shown twelve photos in total. Four of them showed people in a wheelchair, four of them showed people with visible mental disabilities and four showed pedestrians without visible disabilities (see figures 1a/b). The participants were asked to rate all twelve people on the photos regarding various personal characteristics.

Figures 1 a/b: wheelchair users are rated more negatively than pedestrians without visible disabilities

What did the researchers discover?

The result of the survey was that mentally disabled people were rated most negatively. But also the people in a wheelchair were rated more negatively in all characteristics than the pedestrians. The biggest difference was with respect to attractiveness and intelligence.
Figure 2 reflects the results. It illustrates at one glance that wheelchair users, simply due to the visibility of their wheelchair, receive a more negative rating; even though a wheelchair does not allow any conclusions about, e.g., the intelligence of the person.

Figure 2: average rating of wheelchair users and pedestrians

Another result of the study was that having personal contacts with people with disabilities apparently contributed to the reduction of prejudices. Those study participants that were in close personal contact with people with disabilities (e.g. because they were friends with a person with disabilities), hardly made any differences in the rating of wheelchair users and pedestrians without visible disabilities.
A similar effect, like being in personal contact with people with disabilities, was achieved when the participants were intentionally informed beforehand about the topic of disability. This was done through informing half of the survey participants that the study was about the perception of people with disabilities and, furthermore, Swiss Paraplegic Research (SPF) was named as sponsor of the study. The other half of the participants received the neutral information that the study was an examination of the visual perception in general conducted by the University of Lucerne. Comparing these two groups shows that wheelchair users received a better assessment if the participants were previously informed about the topic disability and that the originator of this study was SPF. This shows especially that awareness building of the topic disability may avoid premature judgment.

What do these findings mean?

The results of the described field study suggest that the visually noticeable wheelchair users tend to be more exposed to negative ratings of their social environment compared to the pedestrians without visible disabilities. This applies also and especially for non-visible attributes such as “intelligence” or “diligence” in people with visible disabilities who, if assessed, would certainly not show worse results than people without disabilities.

As sobering as this study result may be, it also shows possibilities how prejudices can be reduced. People who are in personal contact with people with disabilities will perceive the latter as people and not as “disabled people”. Negative attitudes are thus reduced. A promising approach is the initiative Paradidact of the Swiss Paraplegics Association (SPV), which provides educational material regarding spinal cord injury, educates teachers and arranges for wheelchair users to visit school classes to illustrate the experiences to the students that life in wheelchair involve. Also revealing and making aware of prejudices against wheelchair users constitutes an efficient strategy to reduce negative attitudes. Mass media campaigns may definitely be suitable measures to reduce prejudices against people with disabilities, to open up the topic equal opportunities for public discussion, and to raise awareness that equality is a necessity.

Who conducted and financed the study?

The study was carried out and financed by Swiss Paraplegic Research in Nottwil (Switzerland) in collaboration with the University of Lucerne.

from Paracontact 3/2010, Swiss Paraplegics Association

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