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ESRI study of ableism finds differences across disabilities

Study finds general view that prejudice is unacceptable but that ableism is influenced by disability type


More negative stereotyping of some types of disabilities can affect prejudicial attitudes, according to new research from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).

The institute conducted a study that investigated different forms of ableism, or the stigma and discrimination that can be faced by people with disabilities.

In the survey, which was funded by the National Disability Authority, a representative sample of 2,000 adults read short scenarios or vignettes describing instances of potential discrimination, such as a qualified candidate failing to secure a job.

Those involved were given different versions of the scenarios, which varied by whether the individual had a disability, the type of disability they had, and their gender. The version each participant read was selected at random.


Across all scenarios, the participants generally judged prejudice against disabled people as unacceptable. However, the study found higher levels of ableism were recorded towards people with mental health conditions, intellectual disabilities, and autism, than with people with physical or sensory disabilities.

For example, participants judged it to be more acceptable to reduce the school hours of a child with autism than a child with a speech and language disorder, despite other all details being the same.

The study also found a connection between ableism and gender. In a scenario about a single parent starting a new relationship, participants judged doing so to be significantly less acceptable for a physically disabled woman than for a man with the same disability.

The study found that participants more familiar with disability, such as those who themselves had a disability or whose partner or child had a disability, showed lower levels of ableism across all scenarios.

“Although most people express positive attitudes towards people with disability, subtle ableist beliefs may pose a significant challenge for disabled people,” said Dr Shane Timmons, lead author of the study.

“We see that some forms of ableism may depend on the social situation, the nature of someone’s disability, or even on their gender. Not being familiar with a disabled person is associated with stronger ableist beliefs, so improving the inclusion of disabled people in communities and workplaces may help to combat this prejudice and discrimination.”

Dr Aideen Hartney, director of the National Disability Authority, said the study improved the understanding of attitudes towards disabled people and could help inform policies aimed at reducing ableism in society.

In the research paper, the authors say that, despite evidence of ableist beliefs, “a highlight from the study is the predominantly positive baseline judgements across all vignettes. Participants generally judged potential prejudice as unacceptable and endorsed the freedom of choice for people with disabilities.”

The paper, Ableism differs by disability, gender and social context; evidence from vignette experiments, is published in the British Journal of Social Psychology. The authors are Dr Timmons, Dr Frances McGinnity, and Dr Eamonn Carroll.

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Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent