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Defining Attitudinal Barriers

Attitudinal Barriers

People with disabilities encounter many different forms of attitudinal barriers.


Many people believe individuals with disabilities are given unfair advantages, such as easier work requirements. Employers need to 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) does not require special privileges for people with disabilities, just equal opportunities.


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." 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 increase the comfort level.

Hero Worship

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, just as everybody adapts to being tall, short, strong, fast, easy-going, bald, blonde, and so on.


People with disabilities are often dismissed as incapable of accomplishing tasks and not given the opportunity to display their skills. In fact, people with disabilities often accomplish the same tasks and have the same experiences as those without disabilities. 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; and people with developmental disabilities can be creative and maintain strong work ethics.


Because a person may be impaired in one of life's major functions, some people believe that individual is a "second-class citizen." However, most people with disabilities have skills that make the impairment moot in the workplace.


People feel sorry for the person with a disability, which tends to lead to patronizing attitudes. People with disabilities generally don't want pity and charity, just an equal opportunity to earn their own way and live independently.

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 a 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 para-olympics, that all people with developmental disabilities are innocent and sweet-natured, or that all people with disabilities are sad and bitter. Aside from diminishing the individual and his or her abilities, such prejudice can set too high or too low a standard for individuals who are merely human.

Breaking Down Barriers

Unlike physical and systematic barriers, attitudinal barriers that often lead to illegal discrimination cannot be overcome simply through laws. The best remedy is familiarity - getting people with and without disabilities to mingle as coworkers, associates and social acquaintances. In time, most of the attitudes will give way to comfort, respect and friendship.

Next: Changing Attitudes - Success Stories

Mountain State Centers for Independent Living