Better Attitudes About the Disabled

FOR a group that's been discriminated against to achieve its full place in society, two steps are needed. Removing structural barriers is one. A scrawl of a presidential pen can do that. More difficult is winning hearts and minds - how to get the general public to shift their opinion of the group from "the other" to "us."That's why we can be modestly pleased at the results of a new Louis Harris & Associates survey of Americans' experiences with and attitudes toward disabled people. The survey was conducted for the National Organization on Disability. It's a revealing snapshot. Half of the respondents know people with disabilities; 94 percent feel admiration for them (although a good many also feel pity, even lack of concern). Many support the policies and programs that help them. Almost no one feels there are too many parking spots for disabled drivers. So far this is encouraging but not earth-shattering information. More intriguing is the positive role that TV and movies played in affecting attitudes. More than half the respondents had seen the movie "Rainman," and the TV shows with disabled characters, "Life Goes On" and "L.A. Law." Between 36 and 54 percent said the shows changed how they thought about disabled people. Younger respondents feel more comfortable than older ones around disabled people. That may be in part because their world has been changed by two decades of disabled people breaking the structural and legal barriers keeping them out. They've pushed hard for mainstreaming disabled children in schools; for curb cuts and reserved parking spaces; for an end to discrimination in public-sector jobs and transportation. That's the short list. The idea that people with disabilities want to work - and would work if society would remove the barriers that prevent them from doing so - is gaining credence. Each new disabled person who shows up at the office or at the movies or on the bus nicks away at the wall of misconceptions and fears. And as that wall breaks down, so does discomfort at hiring and socializing with disabled people. We still have far to go - but we're getting there.

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