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Schools need to do more to tackle children's misunderstanding of disability

Primary schools need to do more to change the way children think about disabled people, according to new research from the University of Leeds.

The researchers, from the University's Centre for Disability Studies, found that many non-disabled children have a poor understanding of disability and the lives of disabled people. Typical misconceptions held by the youngsters included:

  • Disabled people are not able to work;
  • They are unlikely to have girlfriends and boyfriends, marry or have children;
  • If they do have children, the disability will be passed on to the child;
  • Disabled people have tragic lives, often cut short by their impairment.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that not enough was being done in many primary schools to challenge these views, and that learning materials, in particular children's books, all too frequently reinforce these inaccurate stereotypes.

Some quotes from the children reveal their attitudes: 

  • "Disabled people wouldn't get a girlfriend/boyfriend because 'people probably think they're ugly'."
  • "'Normal people' say to 'dwarves': 'I don't want to know you because you're weird'."
  • "Disabled people can't work. They have to go in the house and just sit down. And they can watch TV."

Other children, clearly influenced by horror movies or Body Shock-style documentaries associated the term disability with stories of 'extreme' and unusual impairments like having additional arms and legs or being covered in fungal growths.

The findings come from the Disability Equality in English Primary Schools (DEEPS) project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Questionnaires were sent to 500 primary schools around the UK in 2008, and researchers talked to groups of children in year two (aged 6-7) and year six (aged 10-11) in six schools. The team was led by Leeds lecturer Dr Angharad Beckett, who said:  "We looked at what non-disabled children know about the lives of disabled people, and what primary schools were doing to tackle misconceptions about disability. We found that although some schools are tackling this issue, many schools are doing very little, sometimes nothing."

"And it is worth noting", she commented, "that as of December 2007 all primary schools in England were supposed to have a Disability Equality Scheme in place that, amongst other things, included the school's plan to promote positive attitudes towards disabled people. Only 30% of the schools surveyed actually had a plan in place that included that dimension".

The study also looked at how disabled people are portrayed in children's fiction - examining in detail 100 texts available to primary schools and suggested by a range of recommended suppliers. Even here they found a very mixed picture, with disabled people often shown as passive and sometimes tragic characters, perpetuating negative stereotypes. "In the worst examples it was almost as though these disabled characters had been put into the story for 'freak-show' effect," said Dr Beckett.

But the researchers also found that once the issues around disability were explained to children, as they had been in one school visited, negative attitudes were easily dispelled and more positive attitudes generated. Further, "the children were clearly interested to learn about figures like Helen Keller, Stephen Hawking and Franklin D Roosevelt - who they admired" said Dr Beckett.

The research rests upon the social model of disability which makes a distinction between "impairment" - what is not working properly with a part of the body, mind or senses; and "disability" - what happens when a person who has an impairment faces barriers in society, physical or attitudinal, that exclude them from doing things that most people take for granted. "It's a distinction that most children, at least by age 10 or 11, are perfectly capable of understanding," said Dr Beckett. "When we talked to them at length we found that many were really shocked about how society effectively disables people, excluding them from many areas of life. Most children seem to have a keen sense of what is socially just and considered the ways that society treats disabled people to be very 'unfair'".

"The challenge, of course, is how to encourage and support already hard-pressed primary schools to start teaching children about disability and promote positive attitudes. More than half of the schools surveyed admitted that they could do more in this area, but many teachers felt they had neither the time nor the appropriate expertise to put these issues across.

"Schools need good quality resources - which are available but which do not appear to be reaching schools - a clearer understanding that disability awareness can be built into the curriculum quite easily, and the confidence to deal with these issues, so that by the time children reach high school, their attitudes towards disabled people are based on fact rather than misunderstanding."

For further information:

Please contact the University of Leeds Press Office on +44 (0)113 343 4031 or email pressoffice@leeds.ac.uk

Notes to editors:

  1. Dr Angharad Beckett is a Lecturer in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds. www.sociology.leeds.ac.uk/about/staff/beckett.php
  2. The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise showed the University of Leeds to be the UK's eighth biggest research powerhouse. The University is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The University's vision is to secure a place among the world's top 50 by 2015. http://www.leeds.ac.uk/
  3. The Faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law brings together internationally-renowned expertise in these key areas of human interaction. Its four schools - education; sociology and social policy; politics and international studies; law - embed world-leading research into a range of undergraduate, postgraduate and professional development courses. www.essl.leeds.ac.uk/
  4. Its Centre for Disability Studies has played a pivotal role in changing the world's perception of disability, ensuring its recognition as a significant equality and human rights concern on a par with ageism, sexism, racism and homophobia while establishing disability studies as an internationally-recognised area of academic enquiry. www.leeds.ac.uk/disability-studies/
  5. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2009/10 is £204 million.  At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at  http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk/

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