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Beyond awareness

Disability rights activist Robyn Hunt recently did a great blog about awareness campaigns. She stated that it was time to go beyond just trying to generate awareness. She noted that there have been countless awareness campaigns and that disabled people are estimated to make up 24 per cent of the population. People should be aware of the issues disabled people face by now. Robyn also noted that having awareness changes very little on its own, it is what people do with that awareness that counts.

The underemployment of disabled people is an example of the gap between awareness and real change. In 2012 research most employers were concerned about the underemployment of disabled people and believed they deserved a fair go. Yet this made little difference to their willingness to be an employer of disabled people. In addition, neither previous positive experiences employing disabled people, or contact with them, made much difference to the employer’s willingness to hire disabled people. The research concluded that the solution was a lot more complex than just awareness.

One of the big issues the 2012 research identified was that most employers (including employers with a disability) thought there was a difference, at least in part, between what they believe makes an ideal employee and how they pictured disabled people. The majority of employers did not see disabled people as ideal employees. In the Social Model of Disability the discrimination and disadvantage disabled people face comes from social barriers, such as the way people think about disability, in particular the role of stereotyping.

Even the best of us spend a lot of time thinking quickly, taking mental shortcuts. This is sometimes called heuristic decision-making. Heuristic decision-making is a strategy of the brain using less information in order to make a decision more quickly. Using less information saves us time and is essential for navigating the world without having to carefully think about everything we do.

Because the process is quick, it relies on information that can be quickly recalled in our brain. Quick thinking draws on stereotypes and rules of thumb. Quick thinking is all about the idea of “close enough”. This type of thinking can be problematic for groups that are linked to negative stereotypes, such as being less productive. Even if we are not biased against a group in our slower thinking, we can still show bias against a group in our quick thinking (often without being aware of our thinking processes).

In the 2012 research, most employers who had actually employed disabled people reported that only minor accommodations were needed at generally low cost. This is consistent with previous research. Yet employers, including those who had employed disabled people (and knew that accommodations are usually minor), still thought that attitudes around disabled people requiring costly modifications were prevalent in their workplace. Despite evidence to the contrary, negative stereotypes about disabled people had survived.

There is likely to be other reasons why stereotypes persist than just quick thinking. Social norms and culture can play a role too. Research has shown, however that heuristic decision-making can cause people to ignore the evidence in front of them (because complex evidence is ignored, in favour of simple stereotypes). Heuristic decision-making as well as other factors are likely to mean that there is a gap between changing people’s attitudes/awareness and changing their behaviour.

To influence people’s behaviour, including employers, you have to understand how and why they make decisions, including the role of quick thinking and stereotypes. The 2012 employer’s research was a step in the right direction, but we need more research. We also need to experiment with effective ways to change awareness into action. Robyn is right; we need to go much, much further than just raising awareness. Unless people actually change their behaviour and give disabled people a fair go, their awareness is not enough.

Sam Murray
National Policy Coordinator

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