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Chapter 5

Chapter 5. Hostile, Ambivalent, and Paternalistic Attitudes and Interactions

Moving from the origins of ableism to its consequences, the next two chapters focus on the distinct evaluative or attitudinal components of disability prejudice (Chapter 5), and how these impact disabled people (Chapter 6). Prejudicial attitudes include the emotional reactions aroused in response to disability, but also reflect cognitive beliefs which often motivate discriminatory behaviors (Esses and Beaufoy 1994). Attitudes are defined as relatively enduring, global evaluations about a person, group, idea, or issue (Eagly and Chaiken 1993). The expression of attitudes are the effects – the consequences of deep-seated universal fears, learned ideologies, and culturally bound stereotypes – but they can also be a source of prejudice when they contribute to restricted access, increased surveillance, and exploitation. Chapter 5 begins with key lessons from the large body of research on when negative (e.g. hostile, aversive) disability attitudes are most prevalent, and when more positive (compassionate, enviable) and mixed (pitiable, inspirational) or ambivalent reactions should emerge.

Research is contextualized according to the traditional methods popular in the quest to understand variations in attitudes toward disability, disabled people, and different impairments. Theory-driven perspectives are emphasized throughout, including approaches that examine when disability attitudes include both positive and negative evaluations at the same time, and how these ideas have been advanced by modern scholarship. For example, theories of ambivalent prejudice predict that when disabled people are assumed to be incompetent but warm, they are also the targets of disrespectful, condescending attitudes, and infantilizing actions. Consistent with this reasoning, pity and sympathy are the typical emotional responses to low-status, noncompetitive groups like the elderly and disabled (Fiske et al. 2002). Other evidence testing theories of ambivalent prejudice (Katz 1981; Glick and Fiske 2001) shows that positive or negative expressions of prejudice depend on whether disabled people behave in ways that are consistent or inconsistent with expectations. Disabled people who take on the “sick role” or are assumed to be dependent and incompetent are treated with benevolence and charitable concern while those who violate stereotypical expectations (e.g. participate in work, sex) are treated as threatening and receive more hostile reactions. Paternalistic attitudes and beliefs have been used to reward disabled people for their subordination, docility, and gratitude with supportive services and care, which then justifies the use of exploitation and control under the guise of protection. More hostile and aggressive forms of prejudice are more likely to emerge in response to those who challenge the status quo.

Conversely, feelings of contempt, jealously, and a sense of begrudging admiration may be aroused when minority groups are perceived as cold, competitive, and capable, which may drive more actively harmful behaviors including aggression (Cuddy et al. 2007). Active harm can also result from feelings of envy toward groups – especially when envy arouses anger. The Stereotype Content Model helps to explain how envied groups can go from being tolerated to being attacked when intergroup circumstances change. For example, when privileged groups lose status to those considered inferior, envy may give way to anger and backlash against those viewed as encroaching on the privileges of the dominant group (Cuddy et al. 2007). During economic crises, envied groups are more likely blamed for widespread social problems (Glick 2005). Envious blame toward certain disability subgroups (e.g. ambitious, educated, or activist) is expected – especially when higher taxes and dwindling social security benefits are attributed to government-sponsored programs earmarked just for them. Resentment toward students with disabilities who receive extra time on tests or other “special” privileges (e.g. note takers, larger bathrooms) is also common (Harris 1991). This section concludes with a discussion of how kind or benevolent intergroup emotions work to maintain systems of inequality (Jackman 1994). Feelings of admiration and even inspiration may emerge along with narratives of disabled people as brave and heroic – especially those who “courageously overcome their limitations.”

Disabled people have increasingly reported on how condescending it feels to be told by strangers “you are so inspirational.” Like other forms of pornography, “inspiration porn” objectifies people and assumes incapacity. It also shames those without disabilities (e.g. “you have no excuse to complain, look at this disabled person who has it so much worse”). The more dangerous message is that if all it takes is a little hard work, perhaps disabled people don’t really need accommodations or legal protections: if one disabled person can overcome their limitations, so should everyone else. The implication is that those who fail to “overcome” depression, addiction, stuttering, or dyslexia must not be trying hard enough. When disabled people are called inspirational, what is it that they inspire others to do? Will they take action to improve disability rights? These and many other questions remain unanswered.

Chapter 5 also reviews some of the more modern approaches to attitude measurement, including the novel Implicit Associations Test (IAT) that uses reaction times to capture unconsciously held associations. For example, people associate more negative terms (e.g. sad, awful, failure, war) with disability than with nondisability, and preferences favoring nondisabled over disabled people are among the strongest implicit biases documented (Robey et al. 2006). The IAT test was developed in response to critiques that the field needed alternative methods to capture the subtle, less controllable forms of prejudice (Dovidio et al. 2011). I discuss the small but growing number of studies on implicit disability prejudice, and the extent to which implicit forms of ableism correspond to explicit attitudes and behaviors. Several studies now corroborate the pervasiveness of implicit negative attitudes toward disabled people among professional caregivers (Enea-Drapeau et al. 2012), nurse educators (Aaberg 2012), special educators (Hein et al. 2011), and rehabilitation professionals (Pruett and Chan 2006).

Finally, Chapter 5 synthesizes studies on the implications of ableist attitudes for dynamic social interactions, including nonverbal behaviors like staring, exchange duration, and other more intentional forms of interpersonal discrimination (Langer et al. 1976). This work captures how the attitudes of both disabled and nondisabled people influence their reactions to one another. According to the social psychological literature, interactions between disabled and nondisabled people are typically characterized as awkward (Hebl et al. 2000). People unfamiliar with disability don’t seem to know what to do, and may say things that are well-intended but come across as rude, intrusive, and just plain ignorant. Expecting to be treated badly, people with disabilities may also be reluctant to initiate interactions (Frable et al. 1998). Yet, both disabled and nondisabled people seem largely unaware of the discrepancies between their actions and intentions, and how inconsistent verbal and nonverbal behaviors contribute to distorted understandings. Classic interaction studies will be integrated to examine when expectations result in self-fulfilling prophecies (Kleck and Strenta 1980; Santuzzi and Ruscher 2002), and the factors that moderate both overt (explicit) and covert (implicit) attitudes, and ableist behaviors including race, gender, and disability status differences.

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