People with disability report experiencing discrimination and prejudice in their day-to-day life which excludes them from many domains of life including work, school, accessing services and the community.
This study is the first national survey on attitudes toward people with disability in Australia. Over 2,000 people from across Australia participated in the Community Attitudes Survey in 2018.
It makes two important and new contributions to research on attitudes:
- It is the first population-level representative survey, which means that the findings can be applied to the general Australian population
- The survey was developed by people with disability who were employed as co-researchers on the project team; questions thus tap into attitudes that are salient in the lives of people with disability in Australia.
The survey examines both personally held and societal attitudes toward people with disability. This includes personal feelings and behaviours toward people with disability, as well as perceptions of how people with disability are treated by others in the community.
Why attitudes matter
Attitudes can have a significant impact on the lives of people with disability. Attitudes are related to disability-based discrimination and social exclusion, which in turn impact the health and wellbeing of people with disability. Disability advocates in Australia have pushed for action to improve community attitudes for years, with the aim of achieving a more equitable and inclusive society for people with disability.
Summary of findings:
Negative and positive attitudes
Most respondents reported positive attitudes toward people with disability. Only a minority reported overtly negative attitudes. For example, 86% agreed that adults with disability should get to have a say about who they live with (positive), while 20% agreed that employers should be allowed to refuse to hire people with disability (negative).
Mistreatment and social exclusion
Many respondents were aware of the harmful and exclusionary ways that people in the community treat people with disability. For example, 42% agreed that people with disability are ignored, 63% agreed that people tend to become impatient with people with disability, and fewer than half (42%) thought workplaces were accepting of people with disability.
Seeing people with disability as exploitable
Sixty-three percent of respondents agreed that people with disability are easier to exploit than people without disability. This view may reflect deeply ingrained stereotypes about vulnerability, incapacity and/ or weakness. While it may sound protective, stereotypical perceptions of people with disability as exploitable could be used to limit opportunities for choice and self-determination.
Uncertainty around people with disability
Seventy-eight percent of respondents agreed that people without disability are unsure how to act toward people with disability. While some actions toward people with disability are overtly discriminatory, other types of harm—such as asking inappropriate questions or ‘helping’ without being asked—may stem from a lack of understanding, which in turn leads to discomfort or uncertainty in interactions with people with disability. Regardless of a person’s intentions, acting based on uncertainty can have adverse impacts for people with disability.
Across the survey it was common for respondents to choose the neutral response option—that is, selecting ‘neither agree nor disagree’ in response to statements about attitudes. For example, 34% neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement ‘people with disability should not raise children.’
Neutral attitudes are important to understand in greater depth. While we do not know why some people responding to this survey chose neutral responses, it is possible that those who give neutral responses hold negative attitudes but were reluctant to report their true opinion because they do not believe it is socially acceptable (in research, this is referred to as ‘social desirability bias’). At a population level, understanding shared characteristics of those who hold neutral attitudes may help identify this group for the purpose of targeted action to shift their attitudes in a positive direction.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD) declares full and active participation in society as a fundamental right of people with disability. With negative attitudes and consequent discriminatory behaviours known to be a key limiting factor to full participation, the results of this survey indicate that Australia still has a long way to go in meeting its obligations. Investing in strategies to improve community attitudes towards people with disability is also critical for realising the aspirations of the new National Disability Strategy.
We recommend, therefore, an ambitious agenda for all levels of government to invest in co-designed interventions that are targeted to those sectors and life domains that are identified by people with disability as impacting on participation and inclusion (e.g. work, education, community). Consideration should be given to multi-level interventions (structural, organisational, and individual) and should draw on currently available evidence regarding the effectiveness of interventions and rigorously evaluated so they can be monitored and improved upon.