Study: Bias Against People with Disabilities Isn’t Decreasing

New research out of Harvard says that biases against people with disabilities are not substantially fading or changing, even as biases against other groups of people are.

Researchers Tessa E.S. Charlesworth and Mahzarin R. Banaji, both from Harvard University, will publish their study in American Psychologist.

Charlesworth and Banaji say that while biases about sexual orientation and race have been decreasing, the bias towards people with disability hasn’t changed much over the last decade and a half.

A report on the research from The Harvard Gazette said, “Those hidden prejudices [against people with disabilities] have hardly changed over a 14-year period and could take more than 200 years to reach neutrality, or zero bias.”

The Gazette quotes Charlesworth, who is doing post-doctoral research with Harvard’s department of psychology: “Implicit bias can change. But so far, it’s only changed for some groups. It changed for sexuality and race bias pretty dramatically. Sexuality biases dropped 64 percent over 14 years. … Disability bias over 14 years has only shifted by 3 percent. The disparity between the change in sexuality bias and the stability in disability bias is massive.”

Charlesworth told the Gazette that explicit biases about people with disabilities have notably changed: They’ve dropped by 37 percent. But implicit biases — Charlesworth describes those as “more automatic and less controlled” than explicit beliefs — can be much harder to change. In fact, in a June 2021 Harvard Horizons talk called, “Can Implicit Bias Change?”, Charlesworth pointed out that implicit bias against people with disabilities hasn’t improved at all in the last 10 years.

In that talk, Charlesworth explained that major shifts in biases across large swaths of society often happen in response to significant “social movements, such as Black Lives Matter or #MeToo, federal legislation of same-sex marriage or mainstream media representation. My new research is telling us that these are the kinds of social events that are prompting transformation not only in our explicit, conscious values, but also in implicit bias. We know now that even implicit bias can change.”

If implicit bias toward disability remains on its current course, however, neutrality could be many generations away.

The research to be published in American Psychologist is titled, “Patterns of Implicit and Explicit Attitudes II.”

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at lwatanabe@1105media.com.

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