Thesis

The Impact of Humanizing Information and Prior Contact on Willingness to Help and Attitudes toward Children with Severe Disabilities

Children with severe disabilities are often socially excluded and stigmatized; this can lead to negative physical, emotional, and behavioral outcomes. Dehumanization is one type of stigma people with disabilities face and is common in medical practice. This is especially problematic for children with severe disabilities because they have high health care utilization. However, research clearly illustrates that empathy improves clinical outcomes. Given that children with severe disabilities are often dependent on the care of others for all aspects of daily living, it is critical to develop interventions that improve the attitudes of potential helpers. The purpose of this experiment was to examine the effects of humanizing information and prior contact with people who have disabilities on willingness to help and attitudes toward children with severe disabilities. Prior to watching a video of a child with severe disabilities, college students (N = 240) read either a clinical description of the child’s diagnosis or a less clinical description combined with humanizing information such as the child’s name, favorite color, and hobbies. After watching the video, participants’ attitudes and willingness to help a child with severe disabilities were measured as well as their comfort while watching the video. It was predicted that humanizing information would result in more positive attitudes and greater willingness to help a child with severe disabilities, especially for participants who reported lower levels of prior contact with people who have disabilities. Regarding willingness to help, the hypothesis was partially supported. There was evidence of an effect of prior contact on willingness to help, regardless of type of information, such that participants with higher levels of prior contact were more willing to help. A multidimensional approach assessed affect, behaviors, and cognitions toward individuals with disabilities. There was evidence of an effect of prior contact such that greater levels of prior contact were associated with more positive attitudes toward individuals with disabilities. However, a significant moderating effect of humanizing information was found for the affect and behaviors subscales. For those who received humanizing information, affect and behaviors toward a boy with severe disabilities were no longer bound by previous experiences. Additionally, type of information moderated the relationship between prior contact and comfort while watching the video of a child with severe disabilities. Those who had higher levels of prior contact and received the humanizing information were significantly more comfortable while watching the video of a child with severe disabilities than any other group. Given this finding, interventions directed toward caregivers may have a substantial impact on quality of life for children with disabilities. In this study, humanizing information interrupted the relationship between prior contact and affect and behaviors toward a child with severe disabilities. Therefore, humanizing information may be a useful tool in eliminating bias toward other stigmatized populations. Overall, these findings lend support to the use of multidimensional measures and a regression framework to further elucidate the complex nature of attitudes toward disability.

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