Social Psychology and Disability

By Rob Matchett

At some point in everyone’s life they will either have known someone with a disability or have had a disability themselves. Disability can manifest from genetics, a spur of the moment injury or ailment, or as a result to the aging process. When we study disability what we see is a lot of intersectionality across race, gender, sex, sexual orientation, class, etc. and this is because disability doesn’t care about who you are or where you come from it is a natural part of life and it can affect anybody, at any time. The onset of disability reminds people that they are not invisible or eternal, but they are in fact human. How does this reality impact our attitudes and perceptions of individuals with disabilities? What are challenges that individuals with disabilities face in regards to identity? How do individuals with disabilities embody their identity? These are all questions that can be answered through research in a sub field of sociology known as Social Psychology. Social Psychology is a subfield within Sociology that explores how feelings, thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, perceptions, intentions and goals are constructed and how these concepts contribute to our interactions with other people and environments. Social Psychology merges the disciplines of sociology and psychology together allowing the disciplines to share and create methodologies, and theoretical constructs. Social Psychologist study topics such as social structure and personality, expectations states theory, self-concept, self-esteem, symbolic interactionism, dramaturgical analysis, socialization, emotion, embodiment and identity. By utilizing the concepts brought by the field of social psychology disability scholars can better understand how individuals construct and embody their identity.

In this blog post I will begin by conceptualizing the term disability. I will conceptualize the term disability by discussing combating definitions of disability. Then, I will introduce the social psychology of disability covering topics such as attitudes and perceptions, effects of stigma, and disability identity. Finally, I will end the blog post by summarizing the key points that were made throughout.


Before we jump into the topic of the social psychology of disability it is first important to conceptualize what I mean when I say “disability”. Disability is a complex concept to conceptualize because there are a variety of different definitions for the term that have evolved over time. Some definitions are legal in nature and are used when we are talking about laws and legislature to guarantee that individuals with disabilities have rights in our society. There are also varying definitions based on what models of disability (Moral, Medical, Social, and ICF) that we use to describe how individuals with disabilities are seen within society. In addition to that, some people tend to use the terms disability, impairment, and handicapped interchangeably even though these terms all mean different things, and some of them are outdated.

Disability, Impairment and Handicapped

To scholars in the field of disability studies a disability is “The inability to do a personally or socially necessary task because of the impairment or the societal reaction to it” (Berger. 2013, p.6). Disability occurs “when an individual’s impairment begins to affect the individual’s major life activities, and are usually thought of as, and are defined through a medical diagnosis” (Berger, 2013). Disability can also be explained as “some condition or characteristic that is linked to a particular individual ad therefore to some extent is embodied. Disabilities are present when activities that are routinely performed by people are somehow restricted or cannot be done in accustomed ways” (Dunn, 2015). The term disability can be broken down further into two subcategories: invisible and visible disabilities. Invisible disabilities are disabilities that are not apparent to others e.g.  Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and anxiety. Since these disabilities are not easily seen knowing that a person has an invisible disability would require some form of disclosure from them. Visible disabilities on the other hand, are the exact opposite. These are disabilities that are easily seen by others e.g. Down syndrome, and multiple sclerosis. There is some physical indicator that these individuals have a disability. Both subcategories range from moderate to severe and can have a limited or substantial impact on the individual. Due to how society perceives individuals with disabilities the experience of having a visible disability is different from the experiences of an individual with an invisible disability. (Smart 2009). An impairment is “a biological or physiological condition that involves the loss of physical, social, or cognitive functioning” (Dunn, 2015, p.3). An impairment usually signifies that an individual has a missing, damaged, deficient, or weakened body part or function (Berger 2013). An example of this would be an individual who is deaf or hard of hearing, they are classified as individuals with hearing impairments, because their capacity to hear is either completely gone, or it is weakened. Unlike the previous two terms which drew from medical or scientific reasoning, the term handicapped is one that is social in nature. While this term often is no longer used, a handicap refers to “A social disadvantage that accrues to the individual due to the impairment or disability” (Berger, 2013, p.6). Handicapped which is really not used as much anymore is a social creation, representative of an individual’s social and environmental factors that originate with the presence of a disability or impairment. Handicaps usually make an individual with disability’s progress difficult and serves as a barrier that can prevent them from doing completing a goal or objective (Berger, 2013). The relationship between these three terms is highlighted in the image below.Matchett Disability1

Laws and Legislature

Laws and legislature are also important to our understanding of what a disability is, because laws have criteria for specifically who they protect. Therefore, they impact the definition of what a disability is and who is considered disabled. Beginning with Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (VRA). Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act prevents programs that are recipients of federal funding from engaging in discrimination against individuals with disabilities (Rothstein 2004). The legislation states:

“No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States…shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” (Section 504 Rehabilitation Act).

The goal of this piece of legislation is to require agencies, schools and institutions who receive federal funding to integrate individuals with disabilities into the mainstream environment, to the best of their abilities. To receive services under section 504 individuals had to “have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities; or have a record of such an impairment; or be regarded to as having such an impairment” (Section 504 Rehabilitation Act). This piece of legislation laid the foundation for one of the most commonly known pieces of disability legislature is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Passed in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act sought to formally end issues of discrimination that were faced by individuals with disabilities, by extending the coverage of section 504 (Rothstein 2004). The ADA is broken up into 5 titles which include: Employment (Title I), Public Services (Title II), Public Accommodations and Services Operated by Private Entities (Title III), Telecommunications (Title IV), and Miscellaneous Provisions (Title V). Of the five titles involved in the ADA Title II applied to state and government owned colleges and universities, while title III applied to private institutions, one of which being education programs (Rothstein, 2014). When it was first enacted not much changed in regards to legal protections, it took awareness, advocacy, and complaints to the department of education, to get sound policies and procedures put in place (Rothstein, 2014). The ADA also brought with it an understanding of who was disabled. To qualify as an individual with a disability who would be protected you had to be:

“A person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. This includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability. It also includes individuals who do not have a disability but are regarded as having a disability” (ADA, PL101-336).

The ADA was amended in 2008 creating the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAAA). The ADAAA focuses on the discrimination that individuals face rather than their disability.  The ADAAA makes several important changes to the definition of “disability” by rejecting some of the Supreme Court decisions and portions of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) ADA regulations (Befort, 2010). The Act uses the ADA’s basic definition of “disability” as an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment. However, it changes the way that the terms in that definition should be interpreted (Befort, 2010). Summaries of the three laws that are covered in this section can be found in the video below. This video highlights the key points of the VRA, ADA, and ADAAA.

Models of Disability

Another influence on the definition of disability is the models that we use to discuss disability and society. The moral model of disability asserts that “disability is a defect and a source of shame; it is presumed to be called by a moral failing or sinful behavior of the person with disability or family. Shame and blame spread from the person with the disability to their family” (Dunn, 2015, p. 10). The moral model of disability is the oldest model that is used to understand disability.

As time moved on people began to shift towards explanations that were more medical in nature. This lead to the medical model of disability. The medical model of disability asserts that “disability is a medical matter, therefore no sin, shame, or blame is involved; disability is linked pathology and the assumption that a cure is possible” (Dunn, 2015, p. 10). In the medical model the disability is described as “property of the individual body, rather than the social environment” (Berger, 2013, p.26). The responsibility about the disability and how others react to it, is redirected towards the individual. The medical model itself is “constituted by a set of disciplinary practices aimed at producing passive individuals or ‘docile bodies’ who are expected to adjust to their impairments and comply with a prescribed regimen administered by a medical professional, who occupy a privileged position of authority” (Berger, 2013, p.26). It is believed that the medical model of disability projects an ableist view where individuals with disabilities are seen as deficient or inferior to individuals without disabilities, meaning that individuals with disabilities need to change rather than the rest of society (Berger, 2013). This is illustrated in the image below.

Matchett Disability2

Some individuals believe that “disability is a social construction and individuals with disabilities are members of a minority group subjected to oppression and denial of civil rights from the larger culture” (Dunn, 2015, p. 10). This is known as the social model of disability. This model goes on to say that “The problems posed by a disability are not found in the individual, rather it is placed on the environment which can create social, psychological, physical, and legal barriers”(Dunn, 2015, p. 10). In the Social Model of Disability scholars argue that “it is not an individual’s adjustment or impairment but the socially imposed barriers that construct disability as a subordinate social status and devalued life experience” (Berger, 27, 2013). Scholars who employ this model to frame their research believe that because the notion of disability was constructed by members of society, it is their responsibility, rather than the individuals, to address issues pertaining to disability (Smart 2009). While the social model is completely different from the medical model, scholars who use this model recognize that there are biological factors to disability. However, there is nothing about the disability or the individual that permits prejudice (Smart 2009).  When we examine the historical themes of Individuals with disabilities we can see how you can apply these two models to some of the ways the people understand disability and its impact of society. The image below offers a visual representation of the social model of disability

Matchett Disability3

The final model that I am going to discuss in this section is the WHO International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health (ICF) Model (World Health Organization, 2001). The ICF is a biopsychosocial model designed to be inclusive of all levels of health not just disability and chronic illness (Dunn, 2015, p.8). The model is centered on the idea that to understand the experience of an individual with disability you really have to understand the biological psychological and social factors (Dunn, 2015).

Unlike the previous models disability is treated as an umbrella term which is intended to place emphasis on the relationship that exist between the person and the environment (Dunn, 2015). The ICF talks about disability as sitting on a continuum in which each person reacts and functions in a way that is unique to their situation due to their personal and environmental factors (Dunn, 2015). Below is a diagram of the ICF model which was produced by the World Health Organization.

 Matchett Disability4

Now that we have an idea of what the term disability means, and we know about the different components of the definition of disability are we can move into our discussion of the social psychology of disability by talking about attitude formation and attitudes of disability.

Conceptualizing Attitudes and Perceptions

Attitudes are positive, negative or neutral evaluations of how we feel about a person, place thing, idea or issue in our environment (Dunn, 2015). When scholars talk about the formation of attitudes they refer to the ABC model which includes the following components: affective/emotional, behavioral, and cognitive. This is reflected in Dunn’s work when he states “beliefs are very much a part of attitudes, which are generally assumed to be comprised of cognitive, affective, and behavioral components” (Dunn, 2015, p.58). The point in all of this is that if you know how a person thinks or feels about a topic then you can understand their behavior patterns. To better understand the ABC model of attitude formation see the video below.

Once formed attitudes can either be explicit (based on controlled or conscious evaluations) or implicit (automatic, nonconscious evaluations) (Dunn, 2015). As presented by Katz there are four functions of attitudes which include: utilitarian, knowledge, ego-defensive, and value-expressive (Katz, 1960). Utilitarian attitudes are based around the idea of rewards and punishments. Attitudes act as a roadmap for individuals to gain rewards and avoid punishments (Katz, 1960). The second function of attitudes, knowledge deals with the human need to understand their environment. This function helps individuals ascribe meaning to things in their environment by allowing them to explain, classify, categorize and respond to stimuli (Katz, 1960). The third function of attitudes ego-defensive, has to do with maintaining one’s psychosocial image (Katz, 1960).  By possessing an attitude an individual has the ability to maintain their sense of self. The attitude reaffirms their identity. Now that we know what attitudes are, and their primary functions we can move on to specific attitudes towards individuals with disabilities.

Attitudes and Perceptions towards Individuals with Disabilities

One of the places where we see attitudes of disability being formulated is in sociocultural conditioning (Livneh, 1982). As a society there are norms standards and expectations that lead to attitude formation toward individuals with disabilities. Livneh list the following as contributing factors: emphasis on body beautiful, emphasis on personal productiveness and achievement, prevailing socioeconomic level, the sick role, and the degradation attached to disability (Livneh, 1982). Due to their disability status individuals don’t fit the cultural norms and challenge the sociocultural factors listed above. There for they are seen as deviant which is expressed when Livneh states “The cultural values held by members of society are often based on the perception of any form of “imputed deviancy,” including disability, as a sign of marginal status. The person with a disability is, therefore, viewed as an “outsider,” an “offender,” or as “different.””(Livneh, 1982, p.339).

Livneh also talks about how ones childhood and the way that they were raised impacts how they interact with people in their environment. Children essentially have minds like sponges so their early experiences, emotions and cognitions play an important role in the development of their belief system as they grow up. Social learning theory asserts that you learn how to act by watching others in your environment. So the way that your peers, and family display words and actions about disabilities is likely to rub off on you. Livneh states” Rearing practices which emphasize the importance of health and normalcy and which threaten any infringement of health rules with sickness, illness, and long-term disability, result in aversion toward individuals affected” (Livneh, 1982, p.339).

Other concepts that prompt negative attitudes include comparability to minority groups, and disability as a reminder of death. “Individuals with disabilities are often marginalized in a similar way as individuals belonging to other minority groups” (Dunn, 2015, 61). The individuals belonging to the majority evoke stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination. The escalation from stereotypes to discrimination is highlighted in the pyramid of hate. The pyramid of hate is a model set out by The Anti-defamation league to show that if we accept behaviors at the lower levels than it is easier to accept the behaviors at the higher levers such as prejudice, discrimination, and at its most insidious genocide. In regards to disability as a reminder of death there is “a parallel between reactions toward those who are disabled and feelings associated with dying (anxiety, fear and dread)” (Livneh, 1982, p.342). When individuals without disabilities see individuals with disabilities they are reminded of their mortality.

Finally there are specific factors related to the disability itself that influence the attitudes of individuals without disabilities. The first of these factors is functionality vs organicity. Livneh states “Barker found that a dichotomy exists between the public’s perceptions regarding certain personality traits attached to functional (alcoholism) or organic (blindness, cancer) disabilities.” (Livneh, 1982, p.342). Level of severity also plays a role in the sense that the more severe a disability is the more negatively it will be received (Livneh, 1982). The degree of visibility of the disability is another factor that impacts perceptions, the more visible the disability the more negative the response (Livneh, 1982). Following along with this is the factor of cosmetic involvement. If there is a large effect on cosmetics then the attitudes will be more negative in nature. The final three factors include the contagiousness of the disability, the body part that is affected by the disability and the degree of predictability (Livneh, 1982). Aside from these factors other agents of socialization such as the mass media impact the attitudes and perceptions of disability as well.

Messages from the Media

In addition to the points that Livneh brings up another agent of socialization that impacts our perception of individuals with disabilities is the mass media. Specifically news lines, movies and cartoons. In virtually every movie featuring an individual with a disability you see Hollywood shining a light on the stereotypes and myths that surround individuals with disabilities. The two most common roles are an individual who has to overcome some barrier set in place by their disability, or the villain. In Disney’s Quasimodo there is a whole song talking about Quasi’s isolation from society. You see how Frollo is using a paternalistic attitude to keep Quasimodo in the bell towers of Notre Dame. Frollo goes to the extent of making Quasimodo believe that he is his only friend and has him believing that he is a monster. Frollo has oppressed Quasimodo his whole life even referring to him as unholy because of his physical disability at one point in the movie which would be in alignment with the moral model of disability.

In show like South Park there are also depictions of individuals with disabilities. In the South Park episode Conjoined Fetus Lady, they single out nurse Gollum who has a physical abnormality which is a dead fetus on her face. Without knowing nurse Gollum or her story some of the main characters decide that she needs to be honored for being brave enough to live with her physical disability. They host an awareness week where people wear fetuses on their face just like her. They highly offend her and she says all she wanted to do was live her life and not be called out. While this is a radical depiction on a television show that pokes fun at everyone. Some individuals with disabilities have interactions like this with their non-disabled peers. These are just two examples of how individuals with disabilities are depicted in the mass media.

Effects of Stigma, and Stereotypes

Labeling and Stigma

Labeling theory which stems from the sociology of deviance focuses on how society responds to individuals who don’t comply with the social norms and therefor commit deviant  acts. Deviance is defined as “the violation of a social norm which is likely to result in censure or punishment for the violator” (Goode, 2007, 1075). Labeling theory and stigmatization are important to the conversation of attitudes and perceptions of disability among faculty and staff because when IWDs are labeled deviant, by the faculty or staff, there are three things that happen to them due to being ascribed a deviant label: “(1) Individuals who are labeled deviant are stigmatized and isolated from society, (2) There is a power structure that allows dominate groups in society to define and label the deviant individual group as powerless, and (3) the reactions that society has to deviance defines that boundaries between conventional and nonconventional behaviors” (Matsueda, 2007, p. 2504). You can see these concepts reflected in the negative feedback model (shown below) which describes the relationship between stigmatization, self-esteem, and participation in social activities (Taylor & Field 1993).Labeling

The model shows that when the individual with the disability enters the model they are met with restrictions to activities and social roles due to their disability, from there the individual is met with a negative label, in this case given by the faculty or staff member that is reinforced by the rest of the campus. Due to the effects the label has on the individual they are met with a diminished sense of self-esteem, they then isolate and withdraw from social life, causing them to lack they confidence and skills needed to be successful in higher education. (Taylor & Field 1993). Negative labels go beyond affecting just the individual with the disability, these labels help to form the attitudes and perceptions of Individuals without disabilities. Through the process of socialization individuals are taught from a young age how to think and respond to things in their environment. When something conflicts with what they were taught they ascribe a negative label to it. This process of labeling and stigmatization is important because of the power structure that is created as a result, which we see reflected in the concept of paternalism


Paternalism is a concept that touches on the relationship between individuals that is based on roles of dominance and subordination. Individuals in positions of power take control over other individuals who are deemed inferior; The individuals in power do this because they believe it is in the best interest of the subordinate individuals as a result individuals who are perceived to be subordinate are robbed of their will culture and traditions (Jarmon, 2007). This concept is important because of an argument made by James Charlton. Charlton states

“Paternalism lies at the center of the oppression of people with disabilities. Paternalism starts with the notion of superiority: We must and can take control of these “subjects” in spite of themselves, in spite of their individual will, culture or tradition…Paternalism is often subtle in that it cast the oppressor as benign, as protector” (Charlton 2000).

One example of this in history was in the development of Deaf education. There was a time where individuals who were deaf and hard of hearing were taught by instructors who were deaf and hard of hearing. Eventually, Abled Bodied individuals were teaching the courses, reprimanding students using American Sign Language. These individuals were subjected to a paternalistic relationship that reinforced IWDs as the subordinate group and individuals without disabilities as the dominate group.

As a society we need to educate ourselves on disability rights and disability awareness. We need to eliminate the stigma that is associated with disability and realize that individuals with disabilities can do so much more than we give them credit for. Everyday there are is an increase in the number and proportion of disabilities entering post-secondary education. The way we interact and feel about them directly affect their sense of self. In the video below you can see how the Ontario Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf made a music video of Cyndi Lauper’s true colors to end the stigmatizations that individuals with disabilities who identify as LGBT face. I chose this video because it addresses the intersectionality that was talked about earlier in the blog. This also dispels one of the largest myths about the Deaf community which is that individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing can’t enjoy music.

Disability Identity

The final section that I am going to talk about is disability identity. In a memoir Simi Linton stated  “I saw…how big disability is , not the condition that I or others have, but the elaborately constructed network of ideas and practices that keep disabled people in place…I have gotten to this place not by denying my disability  or implausibly, “overcoming” it.  But by sailing headlong into it. Making sense of it had become the most meaningful thing I could do. (Linton, 2007, p.120). In this quote you can see how Simi went through the process of constructing her identity as an individual with disability. Identity is a core part of our being, it is the very essence of who we are, and it has such an important part of our lives and the meaning that we give to ourselves. Disability identity “refers to possessing favorable or beneficial self-beliefs regarding one’s own disability as well as having ties to other members of the disability community” Dunn, 2015, p.95). Consistent with the notion of the looking glass self-individuals sense of self comes from interactions that they have with other people in the world around them. This is why the concept of attitudes and perceptions of disability is so important. To receive services in college from the disability support office individuals with disabilities have to own their identity and disclose to other people that they have disabilities. Depending on the induvial sense of self this process can be either really hard or really easy. Some individuals in the disability community really own their identity and choose to be referred to in an identity first context. This is where they choose to have the disability represented first. For these individuals this is a matter of empowerment they see their community as being a core part of who they are. Other people choose to be referred to in a person first manner meaning that they choose to be recognized before the disability. Like any other group it is important to talk to the individuals and ask them how they identify and how they would like to be referred to.


In this blog post I began by conceptualizing the term disability through the discussion of combating definitions presented by laws and legislature and different models that are used to describe disability in society. Then, introduced the social psychology of disability. I covered the origin of attitudes and perceptions as well as attitudes that pertained specifically to disability. I then moved on to discussing the effects of stigma and stereotypes, as well as the pyramid of hate. From there I moved into talking about disability identity. As I moved through the sections I highlighted how the concepts within the social psychology of disability are an important topic within the disability literature. I showed that these topics are important because they helps us understand the lived experiences of individuals with disabilities. It shows us how the attitudes and perceptions that we hold about these individuals impacts their daily lives resulting in barriers that they must face. What I really want to stress here is that anybody at any point in their life can be met with a disability. For some individuals it is an issue of genetics and being born with a disability. For other individuals disability occurs later in their lives as the result of an injury or ailment, or it could simply be from the aging process. These disabilities can be short term or long term and hold a limited or substantial impact on the individual. The point that I am making is that there is variability here. Each person is different and offers a different story and understanding of disability. Just because someone has a disability doesn’t always mean that we need to jump to the worst case scenario and bless them for being so brave to live their lives. That behavior is offensive and condescending. Individuals with disabilities are people like you or me. In fact, I am an individual with multiple disabilities I have ADHD, Anxiety, A slight visual impairment, Learning Disabilities in reading and mathematics, and childhood epilepsy. I have never let my disabilities get in the way of my dreams and I embrace my identity and fight for disability rights so I can pave the way and make it that much easier for future generations. My goal is to challenge people to treat individuals with disabilities how they would want to be treated, and to educate individuals on disability so we can work towards eliminating some of the barriers that exist.  To end I want to share with you a video called how you see me which shares the stories of individuals with disabilities embracing their identifies and sharing their stories in an attempt to change the existing attitude and perceptions.


Berger, Ronald J. (2013). Introducing disability studies. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Befort, S. F. (2010). Let’s Try this Again: The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 Attempts to Reinvigorate the Regarded As Prong of the Statutory Definition of Disability. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.1576503

Dunn, D. (2015). The social psychology of disability. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goode, E. (2007). Deviance. In Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology (pp. 1075-1082). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Jarmon, C. (2007). Paternalism. In Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology (pp. 3370-3372). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Katz, D. (1960). The functional approach to the study of attitudes. Public Opinion Quarterly, 24(2), 163-205. Doi: 10.1086/266945

Linton, S. (2007). My body politic a memoir. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Livneh, H. (1982). On the origin of negative attitudes toward people with disabilities. Rehabilitation Literature, 43, 338-347.

Matsueda, R. (2007). Labeling Theory. In Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology (pp. 2504-2507). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Smart, J. (2009). Disability, society, and the individual. Austin, TX: PRO-ED, Inc.


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