Changing attitudes to disability – is targeting children the best way forward?

The quote from Bob a former Paralympian, below, typifies the views of many of the participants in research that I carried out when doing my PhD regarding the value of athletes with disabilities going into schools, mainstream and special, to discuss their experiences as both athletes and people with disabilities:

“I think with more visits to schools and such like I think attitudes will be turned around and the next generation of administrators and journalists and so forth will have their eyes open and will be aware of what Paralympians, people with disabilities, whatever, are capable of.”


Although this approach to changing perceptions regarding people with disabilities may be a much more long-term approach (as opposed to trying to change the perceptions of the current adult population) and results might not be perceivable for a considerable amount of time, the long term benefits to people with disabilities and society as a whole may be far greater. Young children tend to be far more open to new ideas and are far less likely to have strongly internalised views regarding disability. This idea would appear to be backed up by research reported in New Society (1985) and cited by Barnes (1994), which was based on a photographic study and showed that children did not appear to react in a negative manner to people with looks outside the ‘norm’ until they were at least eleven years old. On the basis of this, the report concluded that ‘discrimination against funny looking people’ is not some innate result of evolutionary forces, but is a socially learned phenomenon (New Society cited in Barnes, 1994; p. 197). Therefore, if discrimination is socially constructed it should be possible to construct a more positive view of people with disabilities within young children. In this way they will also be more aware of and better able to challenge the presence and dominance of the medical model discourse, which will hopefully, in time, lead to a weakening of its hold over the rest of society. If future generations of administrators, event managers, coaches and media people (to name but a few) grow up with more positive internalised views towards disability than previous generations this can only be a good thing for people and athletes with disabilities. This may be a slow process, but may also lead to a more lasting change in perceptions. The benefit of this approach is also that if successful with each succeeding generation the dominance of the perceptions embedded in the medical model discourse should weaken and along with them so too should the societal barriers faced by people and athletes with disabilities. This is not to say, however, that we should give up trying to change the perceptions of the current generations who may have strongly internalised views regarding disability that stem from the medical model discourse.

Barnes, C., 1994, Disabled People in Britainand Discrimination (2nd Ed.), Hurst & Co,London.



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