People with disabilities face barriers daily. Often, according to research the most difficult barrier to overcome is dealing with the attitudes of other people regarding people with disabilities. Whether born from ignorance, fear, misunderstanding or hate, these attitudes and perceptions can become barriers to achievement for people with disabilities. The most pervasive negative attitude is focusing on a person's disability rather than on the person's talent.
Some attitudinal barriers encountered by people with disabilities include the following:
Because a person may be impaired in one of life's major functions, some people believe that individual is a "second-class citizen." However, people with disabilities may have skills that compensate for and/or take priority over the impairment.
People feel sorry for the person with a disability, which tends to lead to patronizing attitudes. People with disabilities generally do not want pity and charity, just equal opportunity to earn their own way and live independently.
People consider someone with a disability who lives independently or pursues a profession to be brave or "special" for overcoming a disability. But most people with disabilities do not want accolades for performing day-to-day tasks. The disability is there; the individual has simply learned to adapt by using his or her skills and knowledge.
People with disabilities are often dismissed as incapable of accomplishing a task without being given the opportunity to display their skills. In fact, people with quadriplegia can drive cars and have children. People who are blind can tell time on a watch and visit museums. People who are deaf can play baseball and enjoy music. People with developmental disabilities can be creative and maintain a strong work ethic.
The spread effect
People assume that an individual's disability negatively affects other senses, abilities or personality traits, or that the total person is impaired. For example, many people shout at people who are blind or don't expect people using wheelchairs to have the intelligence to speak for themselves. Focusing on the person's abilities rather than his or her disability counters this type of prejudice.
The other side of the spread effect is the positive and negative generalizations people form about disabilities. For example, many believe that all people who are blind are great musicians or have a keener sense of smell and hearing, that all people who use wheelchairs are docile or compete in parasports, that all people with developmental disabilities are innocent and sweet natured, that all people with disabilities are sad and bitter. Aside from diminishing the individual and his or her abilities, such stereotypes can set too high or too low a standard for individuals who are merely human.
Many people believe individuals with disabilities are given unfair advantages, such as easier work requirements. Employers can hold people with disabilities to the same job standards as co-workers, though the means of accomplishing the tasks may differ from person to person. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law which does require special accommodations for people with disabilities when necessary, in order to provide them with the same opportunities available to others.
Many disabilities are "hidden," such as learning disabilities, psychiatric disabilities, epilepsy, cancer, arthritis and heart conditions. People tend to believe these are not bona fide disabilities needing accommodation. The ADA defines "disability" as an impairment that "substantially limits one or more of the major life activities." States may have other definitions covering more medical conditions than the ADA. Accommodating "hidden" disabilities that meet the above definition can keep valued employees on the job and open doors for new employees.
Many people are afraid that they will "do or say the wrong thing" around someone with a disability. They therefore avert their own discomfort by avoiding the individual with a disability. As with meeting a person from a different culture, frequent encounters can raise the comfort level.