Attitudes meet actions: how does Britain feel about disability?

The game changers

joeJoe 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.

9 thoughts on “Attitudes meet actions: how does Britain feel about disability?”

  1. My experience is one of kindness, helpful and sympathetic by and large. Some bus drivers could do with a little education in customer relations, but I do understand their problems. I know it must be tiresome waiting for me to get safely aboard and settled before starting up, and they DO have time pressure to cope with. But most folks? They are lovely!

  2. It was interesting because the year of the Paralympics in London I was doing door-to-door fundraising for Scope and I was able to gauge peoples’ attitudes towards disability while they were physically watching the games in their living rooms.

  3. It depends on people’s definition of disability. I have cp spastic diplegia, but also have three degrees, including an MBA, and a very successful career in a strict American corporate. In work everyone assumes I’m there in the position because I deserve to be and have the necessary expertise. Outside work, strangers underestimate me daily, either patronising, looking down, or worst assuming that because i can barely walk, I can also barely think, understand, or even hear. Some days I will let it pass, others I won’t.
    It’s a strange life in some ways… I don’t belong properly to either group. I was brought up with fully able expectations and lived up to those, and now don’t feel understood by those in either world… Friends of.old see me struggle more as I age, but I won’t give in. They don’t really get it anymore though… Am I able, or disabled? Answers on a postcard…
    Does anyone else live in my world?

  4. I have a 3 year old boy with quad spastic CP who starts school next year with his twin sister. We hope for a dual placement – a mix of mainstream and Scope’s Ingfield Manor School. The survey only confirms what i can already feel and see – that people fear difference and that it makes them feel uncomfortable. I think barriers can be brought down in schools when kids are allowed and encouraged to explore the concept of disability and to ask the questions they want to ask. Organisations such as ‘Just Different’ ( do wonderful work in schools doing workshops on those issues and getting kids to think about what physical disability might feel like. I will make sure my sons new school hold a workshop with them to make sure that the kids assumptions about my son are corrected and he can just get on being ‘one of the gang’ (hopefully!)

  5. I think it’s great that Scope is doing this research and I’ve read your initial report above with more than a little interest. I also relate to comments by Cath yesterday (30 Oct 2013 8.17pm) – I recognise your world Cath – I too have a degree and had a career for a number of years but my long-term condition necessitated early/ill-health retirement at 40. So x-colleagues and friends & family who know me – know my skill set – and capabilities. I have experience in community work and work with young and differently-abled people, including those with learning disabilities. Am also a seasoned disability campaigner on a national and local level. However, where I live I am often treated as someone who can’t have much intelligence, is largely ignored and often invisible. I couldn’t possibly be attributed with community skills like instigating the installation of 2 bin-stores for my whole street (yes that was me 🙂 communicating with my housing association about access (as well as general maintenance) needs – needs which still remain largely ignored (I have been compared by my neighbourhood liaison officer to my able-bodied neighbours and told that “there isn’t an issue because my neighbours don’t seem to have a problem with X) – get it ?! Housing associations are still largely ignoring their disabled/differently abled tenants, especially in areas where most tenants are not managing an impairment. I’ve gone on long enough…but yes Cath, I may be partly living in your world too. It’s a very good question – sorry if this is a bit longer than a postcard.

  6. Attitudes meets actions? Perhaps Scope would be better placed to change attitudes if it walked the walk as well as it talks the talk and employed a lot more disabled people in positions of authority, that way non-disabled people would see more disabled people in positions of power, responsibility and authority and become more aware of how much we have to contribute to society. Scope, or the Spastics Society as it used to be known, is one of the old fashioned disability charities and it’s record on employing disabled people in senior positions suggests that it has not changed as much it would like disabled people to think it has.

  7. My feeling is that people can have empathy as long as the disabled do not impinge on their money or time. So, as long as disabled people are elsewhere and someone else’s burden they find it easier to be sympathetic. I also find that if the disabled person has an obvious disability, such as being wheelchair bound or have a missing limb and are a young, otherwise fit seeming male there is more widespread understanding and acceptance. Perhaps this is due to the parallels with injured military personnel and the appearance of such individuals to still be useful to society. They still seem strong.
    I find that, as you stated, those with learning difficulties or mental health issues are shunned by most. Also, those of us with inivisible disablities are seen as scroungers more strongly than other disabled people. ‘You look allright to me.’ With conditions that vary from person to person the suspicion that one is simply lazy and choosing to ‘live off the State’ is even more profound. A Job Centre worker told me in no uncertain terms that I could do something because one of her colleagues has the same condition and manages ‘…to do a bit..’ I pointed out that I might have the condition more severely and the woman responded that I did not. I argued that she could not know the severity of my condition and, although she conceded that point then reaffirmed that I was no worse than her colleague. This dichotomy comes from the fact that her beliefs are that the disabled are all able to work, despite the logic that this is not the case. She utterly ignored my work and volunteering history. My previous contributions being dismissed completely in the face of my current need.
    D.W.P. Decision Makers regularly respond to applications or reapplications for dues (which is my preferred term for benefits) by stating the opposite of what the claimant has written. So, if a claimant states that they need help to dress and are housebound more often than not, the replies often state ‘…I have come to this decision because you are able to care for yourself and you are able to walk more than 50 yards and take your children to the park…’ This completely invalidates the difficulties, needs and suffering of the claimant and further destroys their self-esteem. It is quite hard enough to accept ones limitations without having them utterly refuted by an untouchable bureaucrat.
    The loaded language and nasty rhetoric of this government has given people who hold such beliefs a sense of legitimacy in their standpoint and inflated their sense of superiority while further destroying any sense of self-worth of those of us with disabilites . It is the tactic of divide and conquer.
    With the many financial, political and attitudinal attacks I no longer feel welcome in my own country. Having become disabled at a relatively young age this gives me great anxiety for my future and, if this trend continues, if this Government-orchestrated attack continues, I see little point in and little chance of my surviving. They are IN POWER, which I feel is a horrible term for public servants to use about themselves, and the likes of me are the little bugs hiding in the nooks and crannies trying to avoid the extermination of our self-esteem, (what little of it is left,) the intense scrutiny of frequent reapplications and assessments, and the vicious slashing of our income leaving us to try and survive on so little that the task will have a hugely negative impact on our already damaged health and overwhelm us.

  8. Worry about benefit cuts and being able to live within your means, can overshadow everything that you do to try and live life on your own terms. This worry and uncertainty caused by government and ATOS is exacerbated by charities like Scope releasing ‘media friendly reports’ with headline facts and figures about disability and poverty.

    I understand the game, I understand this has to be done to gain public support and cause the government to rethink, but lets have some real messages of support, lets have the affirmation that despite all personal and societal hardships disabled people have gone through we are still here, We are still contributing to the lives of those around us.

    It’s funny really, I look at my social care package and on a personal level often think, maybe I do cost too much, one mention of this to family and friends and they say “we pay into the welfare system to help you, you need it, you didn’t ask to have CP, you are not a ‘benefit scrounger’. I just laugh and imagine an ATOS computer processing claims.

    I loved the twitter hashtag #howdoyouuseyours, Any stats or data on reach or impact? (for a lowly commenter i doubt it) 😛

    1) lets celebrate how far we have come citing key miles stones, key leaders, and a realistic version of what the future might be.
    2) lets have some conversation on worry and fear about the future and how this can be combated.
    3) let’s recognize again and again that disability isn’t a bubble, to get where you want to be, to live a fulfilled life it takes all of us supporting each other.

    Call me a drain on public funds if you must, but through the marvel of modern medicine (if 24 years counts as modern) I’m still here

    Thoughts Joe?

    (I bet you won’t reply)

    1. Hi uncledave22,

      Thanks for a really thought-provoking comment.

      I hear what you’re saying about the dangers of us putting out stories about poverty and what’s going wrong actually ending up reinforcing the negative. We find it a really tough line to tread at times as many disabled people tell us how bad things are, and so we feel we need to challenge the Government in particular.

      We do also tell many positive stories (e.g. and where there’s a hard story we increasingly try to support individuals to tell it from their own perspective and with some positive in there too about what they want from life and the commonground between people, disabled and non-disabled (e.g.

      I’m sure we could do better and we’re still learning. Please keep your eye on the Game Changers blog this week as we’ll be releasing some new research that raises some important questions along similar lines.

      You were also asking about stats for the #WhatDoYouDoWithYours action too? We had a total of 425 tweets using the #WhatDoYouDoWithYours reaching potentially over 105,000 people. We put together a summary of some of the stories people shared here:

      Thanks again for getting involved in the discussion, we’d love to hear more of your thoughts as we post more on the Game Changers.


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