Joe Hall is National Campaigns Manager at Scope
As part of developing our next campaign, we’re trying to build a clearer picture of what’s happening in Britain in 2013 and how it’s affecting disabled people’s lives. We’ve just completed two pieces of research to begin finding the answers to some big questions.
1. What are the public’s attitudes to disabled people in Britain today?
One of the main aims for our campaign is to shift negative attitudes. Disabled people have told us for a long time that this is a problem. Last year, around the time of the Paralympics, surveys pointed to an improvement in the way the public thought of disability. But you don’t change attitudes in a fortnight and a year on, disabled people and their families say we need to challenge ignorance, prejudice and especially the belief that many disabled people are ‘benefit scroungers’.
We recently worked with Opinium to run a survey of more than a thousand people, gauging their knowledge of and attitudes to disability. There’s some sobering reading in the early results.
- Most people believe disabled people face some prejudice. It’s thought-provoking that there is awareness – and could be useful as a basis for getting the public behind campaigns for change.
- Nearly half the respondents said that some or most of the time they have a negative view of disabled people – whether it’s feeling disabled people are ‘getting in the way’, ‘not as productive’ (linked to the idea of ‘benefit scroungers’) or feeling ‘discomfort and awkwardness’ around them. It’s striking as people often tend to give more positive answers in surveys – answering what they think they ‘should’ say, not being this blunt.
- Dig a little deeper and people admitted to being especially uncomfortable around learning difficulties and mental health issues.
The results show that not everyone thinks the same, and this could tell us where we need to focus our efforts.
- The initial findings indicate that if you’re younger, a man, better off and / or live in urban areas in the Midlands and South-East, you tend to have the most negative attitudes towards disabled people.
- Conversely women, older people, those less well off, people in the North and Scotland, are all more likely to have more positive views of disabled people.
What shapes people’s attitudes?
It’s likely to be a mix of things that influence each person. But it’s revealing that the vast majority of people had little or very little knowledge of disability and many said they didn’t have a close relationship with a disabled person.
Hold this evidence about public attitudes in your head as you get the flipside.
2. How does this fit with disabled people’s experiences?
The other main aim of our campaign is to influence the next Government to improve disabled people’s standard of living. That means the things we all need and expect, like:
- being supported when we’re young
- having a decent education
- having a good job
- making our own decisions
- having enough money to live and being able to save for our future.
If you’re disabled, too often you don’t get a fair shot at these.
Why do disabled people think this is happening?
We recently surveyed disabled people and family members on their experiences in major areas of life. What do they feel is holding them back?
What looks likely is that people’s attitudes are having a direct impact on disabled people having lower living standards. They aren’t two separate issues; they’re interrelated. Here are a couple of areas where it came out strongly.
- In mainstreams schools, half of disabled pupils said the greatest barriers to their learning was feeling self-conscious about their disability and feeling there was nobody that they could talk to. Things like physical access were an issue too, but some of the greatest obstacles they faced were about the social environment: can their teachers and their peers relate to them? Is it ok to talk about disability at school?
- In employment, the two changes disabled people most wanted in the workplace were modified working hours and modified duties to allow for their impairment. But only a minority of those who wanted these changes could get them from their employer. Could this be partly due to negative attitudes about what disabled people could achieve in the workplace and / or a lack of understanding about the support disabled people need? Are there parallels with what disabled people say about their experiences in schools: is it ok to talk about disability at work?
What this adds up to – and hope for change
It’s not surprising that there seems to be a link between society’s attitudes and disabled people’s experiences. Individuals make up institutions, whether it’s schools, companies or political parties. The attitudes of your teachers and colleagues affect your experiences of education and work. And broader public attitudes shape Government decides policy. It works the other way round too ‒ the institutions, systems and communities we’re part of shape our attitudes.
We don’t yet know enough to say how we can conquer these challenges. How can negative attitudes, discomfort and awkwardness be overcome? A few other initial findings from the survey of the general public give cause for hope.
- The better you know a disabled person, the less likely you are to feel uncomfortable or awkward around disabled people in general. Finding ways to broker or strengthen personal relationships could be a powerful route to change if done in the right way.
- The more people know about disability, the less likely they are to think negatively about disabled people.
- People who value equality, freedom and independence tend to be more accepting and more comfortable around disabled people. Appealing to these values in what we do and say could shift deep attitudes.
These might not sound like earth-shattering insights, but it’s all too easy to overlook that there are ways to break down barriers.
What do you think?
We feel there’s an important picture beginning to emerge from these findings. We have further to go to work out what it means for our campaign – and we’d love your views. Contribute to the thinking ‒ please leave a comment below.
Please note, this is just the summary of a rich study. We can’t share all the results at this stage as we want to keep some back for possible media work next year – as we said we’d have to do sometimes in the community guidelines. But we’d love your take on these initial findings.