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New survey reveals disability stereotypes persist among Australians


9 September 2021 at 4:59 pm
Luke Michael
“While it may sound protective, stereotypical perceptions of people with disability as exploitable could be used to limit opportunities for choice and self-determination”


Luke Michael | 9 September 2021 at 4:59 pm


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New survey reveals disability stereotypes persist among Australians
9 September 2021 at 4:59 pm

“While it may sound protective, stereotypical perceptions of people with disability as exploitable could be used to limit opportunities for choice and self-determination” 

Almost four in five Australians believe that able-bodied people are uncertain how to act around a person with disability, the first national survey on attitudes toward people with disability has found.

Most respondents to the The Attitudes Matter Survey reported positive attitudes toward those with disability, and recognised that the disability community dealt with harmful and exclusionary behaviour from within society.

But the survey uncovered that there was a level of discomfort or awkwardness when interacting with people with disability.

It found that 78 per cent of respondents agreed people without disability were unsure how to act toward those with disability.

A dynamic of people with disability being seen either as victims or inspirational also persisted.

Almost two-thirds of respondents (63 per cent) agreed that people were “inspired” by people with disability, with the same percentage believing that people with disability were easy to exploit.  

“This view may reflect deeply ingrained stereotypes about vulnerability, incapacity and/or weakness,” the report said.

“While [labelling people vulnerable] may sound protective, stereotypical perceptions of people with disability as exploitable could be used to limit opportunities for choice and self-determination.”

The survey report includes the views of 2,069 people across Australia, exploring respondents’ individual attitudes, as well as community perceptions about people with disability.

Researchers noted there were a high number of respondents who selected neutral responses when asked about attitudes – choosing to neither agree nor disagree.

For instance, 34 per cent neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement “people with disability should not raise children”.

Melbourne University senior research fellow Dr Georgina Sutherland, one of the report authors, told Pro Bono News this was difficult for researchers to interpret.

She said it may be the case that those giving neutral responses really held negative attitudes, but did not want to share these beliefs because they felt it was socially unacceptable.

“It’s possible people are choosing a neutral option because they may believe something, but then think, ‘oh, I know that’s not the right thing to say’. So that could be masking negative attitudes,” Sutherland said.

“Or it could genuinely be that people don’t know and that they’re responding in that way.

“And I think that in and of itself is problematic, in terms of people not being sure how they should be responding to really important questions about people with disability and their agency.”

The report said that understanding the shared characteristics of those holding neutral attitudes may help identify this group, which in turn can lead to targeted action to shift their attitudes and behaviours. 

Researchers hope the survey data can be used to drive policy action on addressing discrimination, while also serving as a baseline to track progress towards a more inclusive society. 

Sutherland said normalising disability and seeing more people with disability participating in society was vital to changing people’s attitudes and getting rid of stereotypes.

People with disability often face difficulties in the mainstream workforce, and Sutherland noted this was an area where Australia needs to make inroads. 

“It’s about removing barriers to participation and getting equal representation of people with disability across all of life’s domains,” she said. 

“Employment is a really important area… [we need to ensure] people with disability are included in workplaces. 

“Because people aren’t always exposed to people with disability in workplaces, it’s easy for negative attitudes to manifest.” 

You can see the full report here.


Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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2 comments

  • Avatar Erin Wilson says:

    This is consistent with an earlier national survey of people with disability’s experiences of negative attitudes. This study shows negative attitudes are not all the same and differ according to disability type. See Tan, B.S.; Wilson, E.; Murfitt, K. & Campain, R. (2019) Understanding negative attitudes towards disability to foster social inclusion: an Australian case study In S. Halder & V. Argyropoulos (eds.) Inclusion, equity and access for individuals with disabilities: Insights from educators across world, Palgrave Macmillan, ebook https://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9789811359613

  • Avatar Peter Simpson says:

    A lot of people ask “where is your career” just because I am in a wheelchair.

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