Multinational Study of Attitudes toward Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities

For decades, many have believed that the doors to inclusion of individuals with intellectual disabilities in mainstream society have been shut tight because of misconceptions, ignorance and fear. Now, those suspicions have scientific validation, according to a groundbreaking study released by Special Olympics.

The results are in on a major international study that, for the first time, documents how the general population across cultures view persons with intellectual disabilities, and how they should fit into society - views which have far-reaching, negative consequences for the more than 170 million individuals with intellectual disabilities worldwide. The study was conducted in 10 countries across the world, with 8,000 persons responding. On Friday, 20 June, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the Multinational Study of Attitudes toward Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities was presented as part of the 2003 Scientific Symposium, held in association with the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games.

"While the results of this survey were not surprising to those of us who have experience working and/or living with individuals with intellectual disabilities, we're encouraged by the very telling results that those who had an involvement with Special Olympics had better attitudes toward individuals with intellectual disabilities," said the Chairman of Special Olympics, Timothy Shriver. "Simply put, these results are unacceptable. But, it strengthens our resolve to expand the Special Olympics experience to new generations of athletes and volunteers throughout the world. Our greatest hope is that this study will serve as the catalyst for a real and lasting change in the public's attitudes toward the inclusion of individuals with intellectual disabilities in every aspect of society in every country on the planet." 

Overall, the survey shows that the general population lacks an appreciation of the range of capabilities of individuals with intellectual disabilities, and therefore have low expectations of how much people with mental disabilities can achieve. The study also revealed that the world still believes individuals with intellectual disabilities should work and learn in separate settings, apart from people without disabilities. It is very important that the results be viewed in a global context, as cultural values and practices vary from country to country. Thus, country-to-country comparisons are unlikely to give an accurate representation of the true attitudes behind the results. 

The goal of the Multinational Study of Attitudes toward Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities was to document the social acceptance level of individuals with intellectual disabilities worldwide. In particular, the study focused on: how the general population views the capabilities of individuals with intellectual disabilities; the extent to which they should be able to employ those capabilities in inclusive settings; and exactly how far average people believe that persons with intellectual disabilities should be integrated into everyday society. 

It is hoped that this survey will spur individuals, families, educators, young people, healthcare professionals, employers, service providers, sports and community organizers, and government leaders to address what can be done to promote the inclusion of individuals with intellectual disabilities in every segment of society. Suggestions include: more volunteerism with groups/organizations affiliated with the intellectually disabled, identifying and erasing attitudinal misconceptions of individuals with intellectual disabilities, and better education across all sectors of society as to what capabilities individuals with intellectual disabilities truly possess. 

Commissioned by Special Olympics, the two-year study, led by Dr. Gary Siperstein of the University of Massachusetts Boston, is the largest and most comprehensive study ever conducted on this subject, reporting how people across the world view the roles and capabilities of persons with intellectual disabilities in the workplace, the classroom and in daily social life. The results will help researchers and laypeople alike better understand and document evidence of public perceptions and negative attitudes which millions of individuals with intellectual disabilities struggle with each and every day. 

"By exposing the often latent beliefs of ordinary people towards individuals with intellectual disabilities, scientists, educators, social service workers, parents, friends and many others will be better equipped to combat the negative stereotypes exposed by this research. They will also be better equipped to encourage and grow the positive beliefs," said Dr. Siperstein. "It is striking that, compared to the general public, Special Olympics families demonstrate much more positive attitudes toward the capabilities of persons with intellectual disabilities and their inclusion in society." 

"One of the greatest challenges persons with intellectual disabilities face is overcoming the barriers to inclusion in society," said Shriver. "For many years, the athletes, volunteers and family members of the Special Olympics movement have known that the attitudes and expectations of the public determine the degree to which children, adolescents and adults with intellectual disabilities are able to learn, work and live alongside their peers without intellectual disabilities. Through this study, we now have conclusive and scientific confirmation of this long-held belief." 

The study uncovered a definite presence of negative attitudes - both within and across the countries surveyed - toward persons with intellectual disabilities. It also demonstrates the relationship between public attitudes toward intellectual disabilities and the practices within countries that impact the quality of life of these individuals. Attitudes, beliefs and expectations are, in part, influenced by the distinct cultural norms, values and variety of resources and services that are available. 


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