Historical Approaches to the Study of Disability Prejudice
Since its inception in the mid-1980s, the field of Disability Studies, like Black Studies and Women’s Studies, has underscored the importance of disability as a social construction – a concept created to provide some basis for shared ideas about reality. In the case of concepts like race, gender, and disability, the reality that is created (and perpetuated) is often hierarchical: Some groups are positioned with more privilege and power over other groups who remain disadvantaged. Because they are social creations, these concepts mean different things in different places, and change with time as societies evolve and regress. For example, some still consider homosexuality a lifestyle choice; yet, increasingly science has documented its biological bases (Mustanski et al. 2002). Likewise, disability has seen many alternative constructions throughout history, equating it with the supernatural, the animalistic, the biological, and most recently, the socio-political (Burch and Rembis 2014; Wendell 1996).
Some scholars who have taken up the issue of ableism focus on large-scale political, economic, and structural issues that systematically oppress those who differ from the norm (Charlton 1998; Hollomotz 2013). Others have written from a humanities perspective to theorize the philosophical contours of ableism, and challenge the concept of normalcy (Campbell 2009; Scuro 2017). Within the field of psychology, psychoanalytic critiques have been applied to explain how ableist beliefs can affect the socialization of self through discourses about trauma and control, projection, and the rationalization of bias (Goodley 2011; Watermeyer 2012). Rehabilitation psychologists have also expanded their research on personal adaptation to disability to examine the interpersonal and environmental factors affecting the attitudes of nondisabled people toward disabled people – a topic that has dominated the study of disability prejudice for many years (Dunn 2010). …By failing to conceptualize disability as a social category, a group membership, questions about ableism as a more global set of reactions toward disabled people as a whole (regardless of impairment) cannot be considered. This is changing as scholars begin to recognize that the study of stigma and attitudes is incomplete without an analysis of the experiences of disabled people as a group in order to uncover the broader social and political implications of ableism and its effects on the participation and well-being of current and future citizens with disabilities.
The subject of ableism is now being explored descriptively through personal narratives, and discourse analyses, at both micro and macro levels. What remains lacking is a distinctly intergroup perspective that incorporates contemporary theory and research on the psychology of prejudice, mindful of recent critiques and new interdisciplinary approaches (Dixon and Levine 2012). An intergroup perspective on ableism recognizes that while prejudice often occurs between individuals interacting at the interpersonal level, prejudice also represents beliefs and motivations that derive from belonging to particular groups – groups of “us” and “them” – groups often motivated to maintain their status differences (Tajfel and Turner 1979). Until very recently, the discipline of social psychology had not articulated disability as a socially contingent category, a disadvantaged minority status influenced by intergroup power dynamics and the material environment in ways that shape ableist attitudes, stereotypic beliefs, and discriminatory behavior (Nario-Redmond 2010).
Therefore, ground is extremely fertile for new research at the intersections of disability studies, social, and community psychology. There has been growing recognition that traditional approaches focused only on “what’s wrong” with the individual are not sufficient because they don’t account for persistent inequalities, prejudice, and discrimination experienced by this marginalized group. A social psychology of disability is needed to explore the mechanisms, myths, values, attributions, and emotional reactions that lead to biased intergroup judgments, group identify formation, self-stereotyping, and the tensions between interpersonal liking and collective action for change.
Among contemporary prejudice researchers, a self-critical approach has been gaining traction that recognizes how changing historical policies (e.g. ADA) have shifted the dynamics between disabled and nondisabled groups, altering the forms that ableism can take. Increasingly, prejudice is recognized as a complex manifestation of beliefs, mixed emotions, and behaviors that transcend expressions of general negativity (Glick and Fiske 2001). Prejudice, and disability prejudice in particular, can be benevolent and kind, paternalistic, pitying, and inspired by charitable intentions that nevertheless allow for the justification of control, restricted rights, and dehumanizing actions. For example, as more disabled people are gaining employment and access to higher education, ableism in the form of jealousy can emerge, especially when accommodations are framed as “special privileges,” like extra time on tests, books on tape, and the ever coveted disability parking placard.
The changing socio-political landscape is also directing the focus of scholarly research to explore the shifting power dynamics of interpersonal and intergroup life for disabled and nondisabled people alike. This emerging multi-disciplinary scholarship remains somewhat marginalized itself as it is fragmented across many fields of study, appearing in the journals of psychology, sociology, rehabilitation medicine, social work, political science, and disability studies. One of the goals of the present volume is to translate across these disparate literatures on disability attitudes, stigma, stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination to uncover convergent trends and theoretical advancements, and to call for future research on a myriad of questions yet unanswered. This volume aims to address five key questions:
What does ableism look like? What are its common manifestations?
What are the causes of ableism against disabled people, and how are these perpetuated?
How do disabled people respond to ableism, and how do responses affect well-being?
What works to reduce ableism, promote understanding, and increase equality?
What research questions remain unanswered for a future research agenda?