Inclusion not enough to change attitudes toward students with intellectual disabilities

iStock_000016363496XSmallA national survey of nearly 6,000 middle-schoolers could be interpreted as showing discouragingly little change in youth attitudes towards peers with intellectual disabilities (ID) despite the inclusion policies of the last 30 years, says a study published in Exceptional Children.

Middle-schoolers reported limited contact with students who have ID in school, little interest in interacting socially with peers who have ID, particularly outside of school, and beliefs that students with ID are capable of participating in nonacademic, but not academic classes.

For attitudes to change, say the authors of this study, increased contact with peers who have ID is not enough: Students need to develop a better appreciation for what youths with mental retardation are capable of doing.

“What the results of this survey do indicate is that finding ways for youth to witness the competence of people with ID would go a long way toward fostering positive attitudes,” the researchers write.

Limited contact reported

“These findings are dramatic, since youths’ perceptions of competence and their expectations of the impact of inclusion can explain more than 50% of the variance of youths’ willingness to interact with a student with ID.”

“In the past, most researchers have assumed that contact with, and exposure to, people with ID directly influences youths’ attitudes; however, contact and exposure do not directly influence those attitudes.”

Youths’ perceptions of peers with ID are shaped by media, peers, parents and teachers, as well as their direct experiences. Based on the results of this survey, direct experiences with peers with IDs seem to be in surprisingly short supply.

Only 38% of middle-schoolers reported having a student with mental retardation in the same school and only 10% reported having a current classmate with retardation.

With such little reported contact in school and in the classroom, the finding that only 10% of youth report having a friend with mental retardation is not surprising,” the authors write.

Five attitude scales

The researchers surveyed the middle schoolers on five attitude scales:

  • their perceptions of the capabilities of students with ID (16 questions),
  • their expectations about the impact of the inclusion of students with ID on their class (five questions);
  • their intentions to interact with peers with ID (12 questions); and
  • their attitudes toward the inclusion of students in academic classes (two questions)
  • their attitudes toward the inclusion of students in non-academic classes (two questions).

The 5,837 students who participated in the survey were from 47 randomly selected school districts from 26 states and from every geographic region of the country.

The survey’s Perceived Capabilities Scale consisted of 16 questions that assessed youths’ perceptions of the capabilities of students with mental retardation to engage in a variety of activities.

The activities included playing on a sports team, understanding the rules of a game, making friends or sharing common interests with peers who do not have ID, handling their own money, using public transportation and describing how they feel to a school nurse if they are sick.

The mean on the Perceived Capabilities Scale was 10.30, higher than the midpoint of eight, indicating that middle-schoolers have a fairly positive view of the capabilities of peers with mental retardation, the authors report.

In general, middle-schoolers believed peers with ID were competent to engage in school-related activities such as making friends with a peer who does not have ID (88%), but had less confidence about their ability to learn the same academic subjects (57%) and were least likely to believe that, outside of school, their peers with ID could use public transportation without supervision (36%) and handle their own money (30%).

Middle schoolers saw both negative and positive effects from inclusion of students with ID in class. While they recognized that inclusion can have a positive impact by teaching that differences are OK (77%) and encouraging acceptance of others (74%), many expect that it will impede their learning by making concentrating more difficult (59%) or by absorbing the teacher’s attention (63%).

Students who had contacts with peers with ID did not necessarily have different attitudes than students without such contact, the study says, except that students who had contact had greater intentions to interact with students with ID.

Simply increasing contact between students and their peers with ID does not seem to be enough to change attitudes, the authors conclude. Students need greater opportunities to appreciate the competencies of peers with MR and to see for themselves the benefits of inclusion.

“A National Study of Youth Attitudes Toward the Inclusion of Students With Intellectual Disabilities” by Gary Siperstein, Robin Parker, Jennifer Norins Bardon and Keith Widaman, Exceptional Children, Summer 2007,Volume 73, Number 4, pp. 435-455.

Published in ERN September 2007 Volume 20, Number 6

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