Researchers find using a wheelchair can put the brakes on opportunities

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New research from Michigan State University looks at the bias people have toward people with disabilities and how it shifts over time.

The findings suggest that “ableism” biases increase with age and over time.

The research is the largest of its kind using data from 300,000 participants gathered over 13 years.

Participants ranged from 18- to 90-years-old, and 15% classified themselves as having a disability.

“Disabilities are a sensitive, uncomfortable topic for many people to talk about,” said William Chopik, MSU assistant professor of psychology and senior author. “Few are willing to acknowledge a bias toward people with disabilities.”

The researchers found that implicit bias from respondents increased over time and with age, meaning that they had less-favorable feelings toward people with disabilities.

Implicit attitude are thoughts or feelings that happen automatically, which are hard to control, suppress or regulate.

Explicit attitudes are more controllable because it is how people express or portray their opinions about something publicly.

Explicitly participants shared more positive responses with time and age, meaning that they outwardly portrayed positive opinions about people with disabilities.

The findings also revealed that women and people who had contact with the disabled population felt less implicit bias.

“Gender was one of the most consistent predictors in this study, supporting theories that women are particularly receptive to people who they perceive as needing help,” said Jenna Harder, an author of the study.

Data gathered from disabled participants showed feelings of warmth among their own community and a more positive attitude toward their peers. The more visible a disability, like needing a wheelchair or a walker, the stronger the positive attitude toward the disability community was.

“As you interact more with a stigmatized group, you can potentially have more positive experiences with them, which changes your attitudes,” said Chopik.

Chopik emphasized the lack of research on ableism and hopes to encourage more participation from academia.

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