Attitudinal Barriers

People with disabilities face many barriers every day–from physical obstacles in buildings to systemic barriers in employment and civic programs. Yet, often, the most difficult barriers to overcome are attitudes other people carry regarding people with disabilities. Whether born of ignorance, fear, misunderstanding or hate, these attitudes keep people from appreciating–and experiencing–the full potential a person with a disability can achieve.

The most pervasive negative attitude is focusing on a person’s disability rather than on a person’s abilities. A lawyer is effective if he or she has a solid grasp of law and can present a complete case before a jury or judge; that the lawyer accesses law books through a Kurzweil reader because he or she is blind or visually impaired is immaterial to the job skill. A rancher is effective if she or he feeds the cattle and mends the fences; that the rancher with paraplegia operates a cattle feeder system in the bed of a truck via a rod from the cab or rides an all-terrain vehicle to reach fences is immaterial to the job skill. A stocker in a factory is effective if he or she packages the proper number of items in each bin; that the stocker, because of a developmental disability that limits attention span, uses a counting device is not only immaterial to the job skill, but can make–and has made–that person the most accurate stocker on the factory floor.

There is a more insidious attitude–that society doesn’t expect people with disabilities to perform up to standard, and when people with disabilities do, they are somehow courageous. This attitude has the effect of patronizing people with disabilities, usually relegating them to low-skill jobs, setting different job standards (sometimes lower standards which tend to alienate co-workers, sometimes higher standards to prove they cannot handle a job), or expecting a worker with a disability to appreciate the opportunity to work instead of demanding equal pay, equal benefits, equal opportunity and equal access to workplace amenities.

Just what is an “attitudinal barrier?”
People with disabilities encounter many different forms of attitudinal barriers:


Because a person may be impaired in relation to one of life’s major functions, some people believe that individual is a “second-class citizen.” However, most people with disabilities have skills that make the impairment moot in the workplace.


People may feel sorry for the person with a disability, which tends to lead to patronizing attitudes. People with disabilities generally don’t want pity and charity, just equal opportunity to earn their own way and live independently.

Hero Worship

People may consider someone with a disability who lives independently or pursues a profession to be brave or “special” for overcoming a disability. But most people with disabilities do not want accolades for performing day-to-day tasks. The disability is there; the individual has simply learned to adapt by using his or her skills and knowledge, just as everybody adapts to being tall, short, strong or bald.


People with disabilities are often dismissed as incapable of accomplishing a task without the opportunity to display their skills. In fact, people with quadriplegia can drive cars and raise children. People who are blind or visually impaired can tell time on a watch and work in museums. People who are deaf can coach baseball and play musical instruments. People with developmental disabilities can supervise others and maintain strong work ethics.

The Spread Effect

People assume that an individual’s disability negatively affects other senses, abilities or personality traits, or that the total person is impaired. For example, many people shout at people who are blind or visually impaired or don’t expect people using wheelchairs to be intelligent or speak for themselves. Focusing on the person’s abilities rather than his or her disability counters this type of prejudice.


The other side of the spread effect is the positive and negative generalizations people form about disabilities. For example, many believe that all people who are blind or visually impaired are great musicians or have a keener sense of smell and hearing, that all people who use wheelchairs are docile or compete in Paralympics, that all people with developmental disabilities are innocent and sweet-natured, that all people with disabilities are sad and bitter. Aside from diminishing the individual and his or her abilities, such prejudice can set too high or too low a standard for individuals who are merely human.


Many people believe individuals with disabilities are given unfair advantages, such as easier work requirements. People with disabilities are to be held to the same job standards as co-workers. The means of accomplishing tasks may differ from person to person, which may sometimes be mistaken for special treatment. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not require special privileges for people with disabilities, just equal opportunities.


Many disabilities are “hidden,” such as learning disabilities, psychiatric disabilities, epilepsy, cancer, arthritis and heart conditions. People tend to believe these are not bona fide disabilities needing accommodation. The ADA defines “disability” as an impairment that “substantially limits one or more of the major life activities.” Accommodating “hidden” disabilities, which meet the above definition, can keep valued employees on the job and open doors for new employees.


Many people are afraid that they will “do or say the wrong thing” around someone with a disability. They therefore avert their own discomfort by avoiding the individual with a disability. As with meeting a person from a different culture, frequent encounters can raise the comfort level.

Breaking Down Barriers

Unlike physical and systematic barriers, attitudinal barriers that often lead to illegal discrimination cannot be overcome simply through laws. The best remedy is familiarity, getting people with and without disabilities to mingle as coworkers, associates and social acquaintances. In time, most of the attitudes will give way to comfort, respect and friendship.

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