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Release: July 21, 1999

UI study examines how children perceive their peers with physical disabilities

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Although children today are encouraged to look beyond physical differences, children from many cultures respond to obvious differences among their peers, according to University of Iowa Health Care researchers' findings in a recently published article.

Dennis C. Harper, Ph.D., UI professor of pediatrics and rehabilitation studies, led a study examining how non-disabled children react to children with disabilities. Beginning in 1985, Harper and his colleagues studied 400 children, ages 10 to 18, in the United States, mainly from the Midwest. The study was extended outside the U.S. to five non-Western countries including Nepal, the Maori in New Zealand, the Philippines, the Maya in the Yucatan, and Antigua. The researchers examined 1,500 children overall through a series of studies exploring each child's social preference for particular disabilities in his or her country.

Harper's team focused on why children made certain social selections and what they thought about their peers who have disabilities.

"I wanted to explore the context of the situation," Harper said. "These contexts were designed to reflect real-life situations as much as possible."

Harper conducted picture-based interviews to get specific reactions and expressed attitudes from non-disabled children towards those with disabilities. The children selected whom they would pick to play ball with or to go to a show. Their responses varied depending on the scenario and the perceived abilities of the disabled child in the illustration.

Harper found that what is viewed as a disability or physical difference in one culture can be most admired in another. The findings also showed that children in the United States chose obesity to be the least accepted characteristic, whereas it was the most accepted condition in rural non-Western countries. These results may be based on factors such as one's economic livelihood, physical limitations and cultural stereotypes. As children moved from rural areas to more urban areas, Western stereotypes were adopted and appearance became more important than a person's functional abilities.

Harper's research reflects human nature.

"Many people with visible differences have difficulties with social interaction. People need to see beyond looks," he said.

He believes that in order for people to develop positive views towards disabled individuals, social interaction needs to be better attempted by both disabled and non-disabled children. The findings were published in the May issue of Rehabilitation Psychology.

Harper and his colleagues are currently studying how disabled children view themselves and others.

"Because it is common for disabled children to think negatively about themselves or avoid their differences," Harper said, "this new study focuses on how to teach disabled children to speak about their impairments and think positively about their social differences. Disability is part of the human condition."