Yesterday, the disability charity Scope published findings on attitudes, awareness and opinion among disabled and non-disabled people concerning disability in Britain today. The report focuses on the ‘gaps’ in perception between what non-disabled people think or believe and either facts or the perceptions of disabled respondents. So for example, where their polling found 1 in 3 disabled people regard there to be a ‘a lot of prejudice’ towards disabled people, among non-disabled people the figure is 1 in 5. The report, and Scope’s communications around it, have also emphasised how 66% of people underestimate the prevalence of disability in the UK.
The report includes some useful insight into the nature of prejudice towards disabled people, confirming a previous finding that seemingly benevolent attitudes may mask prejudice: 75% of people surveyed some or most of the time think of disabled people as ‘needing to be cared for’ while 32% regard disabled people as ‘less productive’. Though in both instances these may not necessarily always point to negative or unhelpful attitudes, such findings do arguably support the direction given in Article 8 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to ‘promote awareness of the capabilities and contributions of persons with disabilities.’
It also helpfully points to ‘contact theory’ – the idea that prejudice is most effectively tackled through people coming to know one another – and the potential of strategies to increase social interaction between disabled and non disabled people, noting that ‘Just 17 percent of those who don’t know a disabled person think there is a lot of prejudice against disabled people. This compares to 37 percent of respondents who have a disabled friend they know fairly well.’
Such research into attitudes is vital and it is welcome that Scope continues to carry it out. However, I felt the report was weakened by a tendency to draw conclusions that are not obviously supported by the data (and which may lead to unhelpful responses), by Scope’s current pre-occupation with emphasising prevalence of disability (which seems linked to their own strategic repositioning) and the conclusions they draw from the data on under-estimation of prevalence and finally by somewhat thin and perhaps contradictory-in-places recommendations. I’ll take each of these in turn:
Things sometimes look worse because they’re getting better
Scope’s polling finds that the percentage of non disabled people perceiving there to be a lot of prejudice to have declined more steeply than disabled people since 2000 (10 percentage points compared to 5 percentage points). It concludes this to be a problem because it implies non-disabled people are in effect increasingly ignorant of the prejudice that disabled people are still more likely to report. There is no doubt that prejudice and discrimination remains prevalent, with profound implications for some groups such as people with learning disabilities and much of the public is probably unaware it goes on. That is a clear problem. However, to respond to this data in the most productive way I think we need to interrogate what it is saying a bit more deeply.
First of all, the finding that 5% fewer disabled people today than in 2000 regard there to be a lot of prejudice towards disabled people is a positive finding that somewhat flies in the face of claims made by some that prejudice and hostility have become more commonplace in recent times. It’s a shame Scope don’t frame this finding in this way, perhaps referencing evidence that the overall incidence of disability hate crime also appears to have declined in recent years too, contrary to claims otherwise, for example.
Second, it would be helpful to ascertain the degree to which disabled people’s expectations to be treated fairly and with dignity and respect have or have not increased over a period since 2000, which saw major expansion of anti-discrimination law and awareness-raising activities surrounding it. Greater expectations would correspond with greater recognition and intolerance of prejudicial attitudes and behaviours. Just as increased reporting of disability hate crime is often miscast as an increase in incidence, so disabled people’s perception that there is ‘a lot of’ prejudice could reflect an improvement in awareness and expectations, not necessarily a wholesale lack of progress in tackling it per se. Such a finding would not of course negate the need to robustly tackle such prejudice, but it would indicate an increased strength and resolve to do so, on which to build, not simply failure to have done so. Looking at the timeframe from 2000 it would also be hugely helpful to know what caused the spike in perceptions of prejudice among disabled and non disabled people in 2012 – the Welfare Reform Act? The Paralympic Games?
As for the sharper decline in non disabled people’s recognition of disability related prejudice, we can see this – as the report does – as a dangerous decline in awareness, leading to ambivalence and that the answer therefore is to bring non-disabled people’s perceptions into line with those of disabled people. However, people believing there to be less prejudice towards a group (despite that group still facing it) is not necessarily a bad thing if it is evidence of a ‘social norming’ effect. This has been harnessed to hugely successful effect by LGBTi campaigners, especially with regard to campaigns for Equal Marriage around the world. That is to say, people believing there to be less prejudice towards a group can help create the climate in which prejudice towards that group is deemed unacceptable, or in which thinking positively about a group becomes the norm. I was reminded of the instance a few years ago where a couple of parents comments on the CBBC website that the presenter Ceri Burrell, who has a visible impairment, ‘frightened’ their children. A quick look at the website found that several hundred parents had replied to say how positive they found Ceri’s presence, yet It was the prejudicial views of the two initial parents that was widely reported. The sharp decline in perception among non-disabled people of disability prejudice could be a sign that the public at large increasingly regards such prejudice as wrong. It would be useful to understand in more depth what the 78% who don’t think there is ‘a lot of’ prejudice do think about disability because therein may lie the clues of how to overcome prejudicial thinking and attitudes.
Big numbers don’t always make people sit up and listen
Regarding the focus on gaps in perception concerning the prevalence of disability, I’ve noticed Scope regularly tweeting that there are 14 million disabled people in Britain. The report argues that:
‘Disabled people should have the right to live their lives without the attitudinal barriers they currently face. To make that happen, non-disabled people’s understanding of the scale of this problem, and the scale of any solutions required, must be a central part of achieving change.’
Yet research carried out by the Frameworks Institute looking at the communications of several international disability organisations found:
‘Organizational materials in the sample relied heavily on the use of statistics, facts, and numbers to emphasize the scope of the issue. In other words, facts are a primary framing strategy in the field. The assertion underlying these numerical statements is that disability issues deserve our collective attention because the population of people with disabilities is extremely large.
…There are two primary reasons that facts, when presented alone, fare so poorly as a communications strategy. First, numbers provide little explanatory power; on their own, they do not help people understand underlying causes, effects, or opportunities for remediation. Second, when facts or numbers are provided without an organizing principle, or frame, that helps the audience understand the larger story that the numbers are meant to tell, people easily default to their existing ways of understanding the issue. In most cases, these dominant understandings direct people away from perspectives that allow for productive issue engagement and problem-solving.’
That is say, it’s unlikely that knowing there are 14 million people in the UK who meet the Equality Act definition of disability has – on its own – any useful effect on attitudes and awareness. However, the report expresses concern that:
‘If this group is seen to be smaller than it is, then attempts to remove these barriers may be dismissed by some as a niche concern. Similarly, under-representation of disabled people, whether in the workplace, on-screen, or in public life, may seem a less significant concern.’
I think there are far more targeted and effective ways to do this. For example by noting how:
- Almost half of people in poverty in the UK are in a household with a disabled person or are disabled themselves
- 23% of all unemployed people are disabled, as are nearly half of those who are economically inactive but would like to work
- The current generation of unqualified people has very high rates of disability, and the disabled members of the group have very low rates of employment. Their employment rates are more affected by disability, than (at the other extreme) people with degrees.
- Almost half of social housing tenants have a long term limiting illness or disability.
The above examples give context, direction and scale and help make these injustices the problem of those who have the power to affect change.
Most disabled people do not identify as disabled – and why should they?
Interestingly, unlike the section on gaps between disabled and non-disabled people’s perceptions of prejudice, the report doesn’t say anything about gaps in perception of prevalence, perhaps because there are none. This leads to another issue that the report grapples with: a lack of recognition, by non disabled people, that that some people they may already know and who are defined as disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act, are disabled. The report suggests that:
‘Positive attitudes towards disabled people rely on people being aware that other people around them are disabled. Survey results relating to contact may also be affected by disabled people’s willingness, confidence or opportunity to talk openly about disability, and whether they choose to identify as a disabled person
The results suggest that some people must be unaware that they know
any disabled people. Given the apparent relationship between contact and improved attitudes, understanding and overcoming these barriers should be a key part of improving attitudes.’
I find this idea problematic for two reasons. Firstly, if we understand prejudice as ‘preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience’ isn’t the ideal scenario that people simply relate to people as individuals, not to them as a member of an ‘out-group’ that they are either perceived to, or required to belong? Are we interested in tackling prejudice towards ‘disability’ or towards disabled people? Would we have succeeded in tackling prejudice experienced by disabled people through constructing a preferred ‘attitude to disability’? Social model advocates have argued so in the past, and I’ve found myself sympathetic to their argument, but Scope doesn’t obviously seem to be referring to the social model definition of ‘disabled person’ here anyway, so what is the purpose of doing so?.
Related to this, the majority – 58% – of people defined as disabled for the purpose of the Equality Act do not themselves self-identify as disabled, so the question of recognition is far from a ‘perception gap’ between disabled and non-disabled people, but between common perceptions and the – very broad – criteria used in the Equality Act. And here comes a conundrum: if disability attracts prejudice, what advantage is there in identifying as such and why would we encourage this? And as I say above, if our interest is in eliminating the prejudice encountered by disabled people, why would we demand people assume an identify to which preconceived ideas, not about the individual in question, are attached, when they presently are not the object of these?
This was a major issue faced by the Disability Rights Commission in meeting its statutory obligation to promote awareness of rights and obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act and it did so not via encouraging a mass exercise in self-identification – though some felt this should be the strategy – but by conducting audience research to understand how the group non identifying as disabled did self- identify. While some were in deep denial, the majority when asked acknowledged their specific impairment and recognised that they sometimes faced unfair treatment for reasons connected to it, which they wished to see challenged. DRC research also found that small employers often already hired disabled people and made adjustments but didn’t recognise them as such. The DRC’s communications from then on deliberately made reference to specific impairments and used the global term ‘disabled people and people with long term health conditions’ or ‘people with rights under the Disability Discrimination Act’.
There is another important reason to look beyond global attitudes to disabled people. The public opinion agency Ipsos-Mori used to track attitudes to various ‘equality groups’ including disabled people. Its key question to the public on attitudes to disabled people was something along the lines of ‘would you be happy to have a disabled GP’ and the results showed improvements over time. But what if the question was ‘would you be happy to have a GP with a learning disability’ or ‘a GP with schizophrenia’? I’m unconvinced that attitudes to disabled people are uniform, with differences in impairment not the sole variable. Hence attitudes to people with physical impairments, or mental health conditions could see improvements, with little change in attitudes to people with autism or learning disabilities. Or certain disabled people may be the object of negative attitudes because of their circumstances rather than their characteristics, such as people claiming benefits or those living in a poor area. If attitudes are not uniform, then neither are any solutions we might conceive of.
Which leads me to the recommendations. I was pleased to see ‘contact theory’ referenced in the report – something the DRC did tentative work on before being wound up in 2007, yet not picked up by the EHRC or anyone else until now. But the only recommendation Scope make to these ends is for there to be a more robust effort to meet the government’s existing goal of 1 million more disabled people being in work. Clearly workplaces are important places for contact and interaction, but the report says nothing about all the other domains of associational life – schools, places of worship, sports, football supporters, Cub-Scouts and Girl Guides, youth clubs and so on – the places where we come together and meet one another. Inclusive education in particular is a huge omission. Nor does it say anything about the influence of power in those relationships, which lies at the heart of tackling the prejudice Scope notes that disabled people are too often perceived as ‘objects’ of care, not active citizens. Surely the findings and theory suggest the need for a concrete social interaction strategy, with contact theory at its heart? But we should also ask whether it is sensible to expect to ‘change attitudes to disabled people’ as a whole? Does people having more contact with people who use a wheelchair or have a sight impairment change attitudes to people with mental health conditions?
Similarly, the report argues that the findings give cause a new dedicated cross-Departmental strategy on disability. This flows naturally from Scope’s apparent insistence on trying to mould a big and diverse bunch of people into one disability category, to encourage them all to take on that description of themselves, and increase the degree to which other people recognise that category as a thing too – with the aim of raising the status of the group. But isn’t this also a contradiction? Reinforcing the idea of an – albeit large – outgroup is also likely to reinforce rather than help dismantle prejudice. Aren’t there other ways of recognising that there are different routes to fulfilment and the exercise of rights, while finding all sorts of ways to make common cause across a disability/non-disability divide that needs to be broken down rather than risk being reinforced in this way?
Prejudice blights lives and undermines opportunity. As the recent LeDeR report found, it causes people to die needlessly. Scope are to be commended for putting the issues back on the agenda. We should redouble our efforts to tackle it, learning from other fields such as LGBTi or race for example. If we’re going to succeed, we need to mind the gap between what the available evidence appears to say and what it actually means, and avoid promoting ideas that may have the unintended consequence of making matters worse.