and Perceptions of Persons with Physical Disabilities and their Affects
on Interpersonal Communication
by Chris Williams, 1994
Review of Literature
Real World Anxiety
Persons with visible physical disabilities have been historically perceived as "invalids" and not true members of society at large. Fortunately, this trend has been changing in recent years, no doubt in part due to the Independent Living Movement and the 1991 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, installing ramps and wider bathroom doors solves only the logistical part of integration. What remains are the long held attitudes and perceptions about persons with physical disabilities that act as barriers to effective communication between able-bodied individuals and the disabled.
Two areas of communication are focused on to understand these barriers: mass media (Longmore, 1985; Zola, 1985; Keller, Hallahan, McShane, Crowley, Blandford, 1990) and interpersonal communication (Fichten, 1986; Kisabeth, Richardson, 1985; Braithwaite, 1991).
Even in today's tolerant and politically correct society, there still seems to be a strong social stigma attached to the physically challenged. What are the perceptions and attitudes toward persons with visible physical disabilities and is there an effect on interpersonal communication between able-bodied and physically disabled individuals?
Review of Literature - Film, TV and News [top]
While there is an abundance of physically disabled people and characters in film, television and newspapers, they are not always shown in an accurate or realistic manner. In film, most are portrayed in a negative light such as the crippled criminal or the maladjusted individual (Longmore, 1985). In the case of the former, examples include the evil and perverted Dr. Strangelove and the one-armed murderer in The Fugitive. Also, disabled criminals are often shown as being "bitter" about their condition and that the disability is punishment for their evil (Longmore, 1985).
However, more prevalent in film than the disabled criminal, is the image of the maladjusted disabled person (Longmore, 1985). In this case, integration into society and personal relationships is wholly the disabled persons' responsibility in that they must confront their situation and come to terms with it. Usually, the able-bodied characters understand the situation better than the handicapped individual and provide the solution (Longmore, 1985).
Like film, television provides another skewed version of physically disabled persons' lives. The polar extremes are commonly portrayed: a pitiful person who is to be felt sorry for, or the hero who is meant to inspire. In the case of the former, the disability itself becomes the central issue, instead of the individual (Zola, 1985). The disability is used as means to get sympathy. "The television lives of people with disability are quite empty" (Zola, 1985).
The extreme opposite depiction is that of the overachiever or "super crip." These characters, both fictional and non-fictional, are shown as being "incredible" or "extraordinary" because they have strive to overcome their limitations and serve as role models or yardsticks for measuring personal achievement. "If someone so tragically crippled can overcome the obstacles confronting them, think what you, without such a handicap can do" (Longmore, 1985).
Along with film and television, newspapers also misrepresent people with disabilities. While newspapers commonly use sensationalism to sell papers, sensationalizing handicapped people's lives does so at the expense of such individuals (Keller, et al, 1990). In Keller's study, a stratified random sampling of daily newspapers across the country was taken in 1987. While 51% of the articles were neutral as to the impact of disability on the person's life, 48% did show the disability as having a negative impact, and only 1% portrayed the impact as positive (Keller, et al, 1990). Within the negative impact references, 78% used terminology like "victim of" or "suffers from" (Keller, et al, 1990). The effect of this produces an emotional article rather than an informational one, "...leaving the reader with the nebulous impression that individuals with disabilities are faced with serious problems with which they cannot cope" (Keller, et al, 1990). Despite these problems, it cannot be left without mentioning that there are also a few quality depictions of physically disabled people in film, television and newspapers.
While the mass media may influence our attitudes and perceptions, what happens when able-bodied people actually interact directly with persons with physical disabilities?
Real World Difficulties [top]
There are many difficulties surrounding interpersonal communication between able-bodied and physically disabled strangers such as negative attitudes and avoidance toward the disabled person (Fichten, 1986). Research using the Social Avoidance and Distress Scale (SAD), as well as the Attitudes Toward Disabled Persons Scale (ATDP), backs up this assumption (Fichten, 1986). According to Fichten, these communication barriers are not caused by lack of knowledge of what to say or do, rather by an internal social anxiety or self-consciousness on behalf of both able-bodied and disabled individuals (1986).
One way to reduce this social anxiety is through self-disclosure of the disabled person's handicap to the able-bodied participant in interpersonal communication situations (Braithwaite, 1991). Able-bodied people react more positively toward people with physical disabilities who engage in self-disclosure, especially when the information revealed is about the disability (Thompson, 1982). Braithwaite conducted interviews of 24 subjects with visible physical mobility disabilities, and asked them to discuss their communication experiences with able-bodied individuals during initial and early encounters (Braithwaite, 1991). It was found that able-bodied persons, despite initial reticence, usually asked the subjects questions about their disability early on such as: "Why are you in a wheelchair?" (Braithwaite, 1991). Other times they would ask if it were okay to ask about the disability. The information disclosed by the disabled person didn't have to be at length or in detail, just enough to ease any anxieties and satisfy curiosities. (Braithwaite, 1991).
Perhaps the only exception to this would be the censoring by parents of children who ask similar questions to a physically disabled person out of innocence and curiosity. (Braithwaite, 1991). Able-bodied adults sometimes don't ask the questions they want to because they feel the disabled person might be sensitive, or that the able-bodied person is uncomfortable about the issue of disability because they are afraid of dealing with it in their own life (Braithwaite, 1991). The disabled person usually expects that the subject of their disability will come up and occasionally takes the initiative and self-disclose early on in the interaction. However, some disabled persons delay disclosure until they "can establish themselves as a person first,' rather than being seen as a 'disabled person'" (Braithwaite, 1991).
As with self-disclosure, it is important that disabled individuals assume an active role in changing negative attitudes toward themselves (Kisabeth & Richardson, 1985). In a study involving 41 undergraduate students taking 2 beginning racquetball classes, an ATDP Scale and questionnaire were given. Then, a disabled "student," who was actually one of the authors conducting the research, joined the class in the treatment group (Kisabeth & Richardson, 1985). When the surveys were given again at the end of the experiment, the results that the presence of one disabled person can have a positive impact on changing attitudes toward physical disabilities (Kisabeth & Richardson, 1985).
The research clearly showed a misrepresentation of physically disabled persons in film, television and newspapers. Whether this misrepresentation affects interpersonal communication between able-bodied and disabled persons was not specifically made clear.
The research also proved that there are social anxieties among able-bodied persons that hinder interpersonal communication with physically disabled persons. Since the Kisabeth & Richardson (1985) study showed that these anxieties were dramatically reduced by personal contact with just one disabled person, it stands to reason that previous perceptions were derived from social beliefs and the mass media.
Personal contact with a physically disabled person seems to be the most effective way to change perceptions and attitudes. "Physically disabled persons who wish to achieve independence must assume responsibility for helping facilitate attitude change" (Kisabeth & Richardson, 1985). Unfortunately, not all able-bodied persons will have the opportunity to spend adequate time with a physically disabled person in order to change their perceptions and attitudes.
As a result, changes must be made in the portrayal of persons with physical disabilities in the mass media. "Although the disability community and civil rights movement have slowly been becoming more media conscious, concerted efforts to alter media images have thus far remained on a comparatively small scale" (Longmore, 1985).
Future research should try to link the effects of the (mis)representation of the physically disabled in the mass media with barriers that hinder interpersonal communication with able-bodied individuals. Also, most of the research is roughly ten years old, and huge strides have recently been made socially toward complete integration of the physically disabled. And in the mass media, television commercials have taken the lead in positively and accurately portraying persons with disabilities.
Therefore, the research question must be updated: How do positive or negative portrayals of physically disabled persons in the mass media affect interpersonal communication between able-bodied and disabled individuals.
Braithwaite, D. O. (1991). "Just how much did that wheelchair cost?": Management of privacy boundaries by persons with disabilities. Western Journal of Speech Communication, 55(3), 254-274.
Fichten, C. S. (1986). Self, other, and situation-referent automatic thoughts: Interaction between people who have a physical disability and those who do not. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 10(5), 571-588.
Keller, C. E., Hallahan, D. P., McShane, E. A., Crowley, E. P., & Blandford, B. J. (1990). The coverage of persons with disabilities in American newspapers. Journal of Special Education, 24(3), 271-282.
Kisabeth, K. L. & Richardson, D. B. (1985). Changing attitudes toward disabled individuals: The effect of one disabled person. Therapeutic Recreation Journal, 20(4), 24-33.
Longmore, P. K. (1985). Screening stereotypes: Images of disabled people. Social Policy, 16(1), 31-37.
Thompson, T. L. (1982) Disclosure as a disability-management strategy: A review and conclusions. Communication Quarterly, 30(2), 196-202.
Zola, I. K. (1985). Depictions of disability - metaphor, message, and medium in the media: A research and political agenda. Social Science Journal, 22(4), 5-17.