Social Education 58(4) 1994, pp. 233-237
National Council for the Social Studies

Influencing High School Students' Attitudes Toward and Interactions with Peers with Disabilities

By Robert M. Donaldson, Edwin Helmstetter, Jodi Donaldson, and Robert West
There are 48 million Americans with disabilities, making them members of the largest minority group in the United States. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other civil rights legislation have granted persons with disabilities the legal right to equal opportunity in education, employment, housing, transportation, and other community services. In spite of these legal provisions, however, 50 to 75 percent of adults with disabilities are unemployed or underemployed (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights 1983); 59 percent are lonely or have unmet social needs (Kuh, Lawrence, and Tripp 1986); and 71 percent are isolated for at least part of the school day in segregated settings (U.S. Department of Education 1990). Those with more severe disabilities experience the greatest isolation from the mainstream of society.
Negative attitudes and stereotyped images of persons with disabilities are factors in the grim statistics on employment, education, and housing. Indeed, many persons with disabilities believe that the greatest barriers to full participation in society are not their disabilities or inaccessible buildings, but rather biased attitudes of and treatment by nondisabled persons. For example, some employers refuse to hire individuals with disabilities because they assume they are incapable of doing a job or they are a liability in terms of safety or health issues. Some educators have lower expectations for disabled students or track students because of misperceptions of their capabilities and interests. Many persons with disabilities are without friends because others view them in terms of their differences, instead of the interests and needs they have in common with many nondisabled persons. Such negative attitudes and images are held not only by adults, but also by school age children and youth (Acton and Zarbatany 1988; Bak and Siperstein 1987; Gottlieb and Switzky 1982).

Correcting these negative views is essential if persons with disabilities are to have an equal opportunity to participate in all facets of society. At the same time, such a move has implications for preparing nondisabled people to participate in a society that is becoming increasingly diverse. It seems appropriate that the social studies play a role in this task, as one of the discipline's basic goals is to prepare young people to be participating citizens in a democratic society and in a world that is becoming increasingly interdependent and pluralistic (National Council for the Social Studies 1979). An important part of this preparation is to help students reflect upon the values, beliefs, and practices that undergird democratic processes, such as justice, equality, pluralism, appreciation of individual differences, responsibility, and commonality among all people (Brandhorst 1990; Hartoonian and Laughlin 1989; Kniep 1989; National Council for the Social Studies 1989; Stanley and Nelson 1986).

In many situations, this reflection can be focused upon conditions at schools regarding treatment of students with disabilities. Indeed, most schools still maintain programs in which students, particularly those with moderate or severe disabilities, are isolated from their nondisabled peers for at least part of the school day. By relating the discussion of equality, justice, individual differences, etc., to the school context, teachers can capitalize on the belief that students learn best when they can relate the discussion to something around them (Brandhorst 1990; National Council for the Social Studies 1989).

Recently, it has also been suggested that social studies attend not only to the intellectual development of youngsters, but also to their affective development as caring, morally sensitive, and prosocial individuals (Scott 1991). Relevant to this discussion, as well as to the citizenship issue, is research on the impact of interactions with peers with moderate or severe disabilities on nondisabled students. Research has shown that nondisabled students who interact with peers with disabilities obtain a better understanding of other people's behavior, accept individual differences, are less fearful of human differences, and have increased appreciation of diversity. Students also become involved in relationships with persons with disabilities as a means of addressing their basic human interest in helping others, of learning more about themselves, and of developing improved self-concept and personal values (Biklen, Corrigan, and Quick 1989; Helmstetter, Peck, and Giangreco, in press; Murray-Seegert 1989; Peck, Donaldson, and Pezzoli 1990). Practices which promote interaction with students with moderate or severe disabilities would appear, then, to encourage many of the outcomes associated with citizenship, as well as aspects of affective education.

The challenge, then, becomes how to encourage understanding and interaction between nondisabled students and their peers with disabilities, particularly those who are segregated for part or all of the school day from their nondisabled peers. Whatever approach is used, it must also address the negative attitudes and stereotyped views of persons with disabilities held by many nondisabled students. Merely physically integrating students with disabilities into public schools is often inadequate for promoting acceptance and positive interactions, and frequently leads to negative outcomes (Donaldson 1980).

Only a few studies have addressed adolescents' attitudes toward and interactions with peers with disabilities. These studies utilized structured interactions in the form of tutoring or friendship programs (Donder and Nietupski 1981; Haring et al. 1987), or the sharing of information about disabilities and disability issues through such means as films, discussion, and simulation of disabling conditions (Fiedler and Simpson 1987; Handlers and Austen 1980).

Review of the studies on promoting attitude change and interaction raises several issues that will be addressed in this study. First, more strategies are needed for use in high schools. One approach is to incorporate information related to disabilities into the existing social studies curriculum (Hamre-Nietupski et al. 1989; Hamre-Nietupski and Nietupski 1981). This would assure that the information would be provided each year as part of the curriculum and involve all students enrolled in the class. Thus, it could reach many students who otherwise would have no opportunity to learn about, discuss, or interact with individuals with disabilities.

The second issue addressed by this study is the need for more research on the durability of effects. The follow-up data appear to be mixed. For example, maintenance of positive attitude change has been found at two weeks (Donder and Nietupski 1981) to two years (Esposito and Reed 1986), while other researchers have found that subjects failed to maintain results over a period as short as nine days following intervention (Westervelt and McKinney 1980). The present study measured the short- and long-term effects of a unit in a required high school social studies class on tenth graders' attitudes toward and contacts with peers with moderate or severe disabilities. The purpose of this study was to determine whether the social studies unit would: a) produce an immediate change in student attitudes toward, and amount of contact with, peers with disabilities; and b) result in long-term (i.e., six month) change in student attitude and amount of contact with peers with disabilities.

Participants were 142 nondisabled students enrolled in seven tenth-grade social studies classes. The high school consisted of grades ten to twelve and was located in a small urban community of 17,000 people located in the northwestern United States. Social studies was a required course for all tenth graders at the high school.

A series of social studies activities were developed as a unit of study designed to promote increased awareness, understanding, sensitivity, and ultimately, acceptance and interaction with peers with disabilities. While the unit was unique in its structure and its focus on disability, it was intended to highlight how disability is part of the larger issue of diversity, which was integrated in a more general way throughout the social studies curriculum.

Activities were conducted during four consecutive days of regularly scheduled class sessions. Each session was fifty-five minutes in length. The purpose of the first session was to introduce students to common societal responses toward individuals with disabilities. The social studies teacher began the session with an overview of the unit on individual differences and the significance of individual differences in society. Following this orientation, students viewed the movie Elephant Man, which highlights the impact of pronounced physical differences on an individual's life. The intent of the first session was to focus student attention and stimulate initial thinking about how society responds to individual differences. This set the stage for subsequent activities relative to practices at the students' school with respect to persons with disabilities.

At the beginning of the second session, the class viewed the conclusion of Elephant Man. The remainder of the session consisted of an informal presentation by a special education teacher which included: a) a brief historical account of traditional educational approaches which typically involved segregating students with disabilities from their peers by placing them in special education classrooms; b) the evolution of practices at the local high school which was increasingly integrating students with moderate or severe disabilities into all aspects of school life; c) an analysis of obvious individual student differences and the easily overlooked similarities evidenced by all students; and d) the responsibility of all students for acceptance and understanding of human differences. The primary purpose of this session was to stimulate students' thinking at a personal level in terms of their own needs and how they would feel if they were not accepted. Information on specific disabilities was limited because this typically highlights individual differences (e.g., causes, characteristics) rather than similarities.

The third session consisted of a panel discussion by six nondisabled peers on issues related to the acceptance of individuals with disabilities. In identifying potential panel members, teachers selected students who had a close relationship with, or had experienced a significant change in their acceptance of, peers who had disabilities. Additionally, to maximize the credibility of the panel members, teachers identified students representing a cross section of the student body. During this study, the panel consisted of a well-known athlete, an intellectually gifted student, two students generally regarded as popular, and one recognized for counter-cultural views and appearance. The panel discussion began with panel members providing a personal account of their experiences, changes they underwent as a result of these experiences, and the difficulties they faced in their interactions and attitude change (e.g., dealing with a student's physical appearance and drooling, physical aggression such as pulling hair and knocking books from students' hands, students having "crushes" on them). The teachers, who acted as panel moderators, encouraged audience discussion and problem solving about their questions and concerns, such as why students with disabilities often had no friends, how to overcome communication barriers with students unable to talk, and how to respond to behavior problems.

The social studies teacher facilitated the fourth and final session, which was designed to bring closure to the information shared during the first three sessions. This involved class discussion about what they had learned, what the next step should be in terms of interactions with peers with disabilities, and evaluation of the unit. Class members also completed a written project, such as a reaction paper to a topic that was discussed, to provide an outlet for expression of students' personal feelings and other reactions to the unit.

Research Design
Four of the seven social studies classes were randomly assigned to the study, which involved a pretest, intervention (i.e., unit on disabilities), immediate posttest during the last session of the unit, and a follow-up posttest six months later. To test for the effects of pretesting, the other three classes received the unit and the immediate posttest, but no pretest. It was not feasible or desirable to exclude any classes from the social studies unit or to disrupt the course schedule by having some classes receive the unit at a later date.

Student attitudes and contact with peers were measured using The Acceptance Scale: Secondary Level (Version B) (Voeltz 1981). The Acceptance Scale is a group-administered, thirty-seven item survey that requires approximately twenty minutes to complete. Each item requires a single response on a three point Likert-type scale (agree, disagree, undecided). The scale consists of thirty-two core items reflecting randomly varied positive and negative statements related to individuals with disabilities. The remaining five items consist of two general interpersonal skill items which do not refer specifically to individuals with disabilities but instead probe for the general ability to build and maintain friendships, and three cooperation checks designed to ensure that respondents understand and/or cooperate in completing the survey (e.g., "We usually have school lunch at 9 a.m."). The protocols of students who responded inaccurately to any of the cooperation check items are considered as invalid and not to be used. None of the protocols in this study needed to be discarded based upon inaccurate responses to cooperation check items. Only the thirty-two core items and three cooperation check items were used in this study in order to reduce the time needed in class to complete the scale. Core items consisted of twenty-one attitude items (e.g., "I wouldn't want a special education student to sit next to me on the bus or on a field trip") and eleven contact items. Contact items referred to interactions that had occurred with a person with a disability (e.g., "I have talked with some mentally retarded students at schooquot;).

Validity and reliability data for The Acceptance Scale versions used with lower and upper elementary grades were reported in Voeltz (1980, 1982). The scale's construct and predictive validity was supported by the significantly higher Acceptance Scale scores of students who volunteered as special friends, in comparison to a control group (Voeltz 1980, 1982). Additionally, the amount of participation by nondisabled students was significantly and positively correlated with total scores on the Acceptance Scale (Voeltz 1982). A split-half coefficient (Spearman-Brown corrected) of .82 was obtained with regard to the scale's internal consistency (Voeltz 1980). Test-retest reliability was .68 with a sample of 101 students tested on two occasions, three weeks apart (Voeltz 1980).

For data analysis, a score of zero was assigned to negative or "nonaccepting" responses on the three-point, Likert-type response scale, a score of two to positive or "accepting" responses, and a score of one for the intermediate "undecided" responses. Thus, within the range of zero to two, high scores reflected accepting attitudes, and low scores indicated nonaccepting attitudes.

T-tests for independent groups were used to test the hypotheses regarding short- and long-term changes in attitudes and contact, and to examine pretest effects. The dependent samples t-test could not be used in the present study because it was not possible to code the scales in order to match individuals' pretest and posttest scores.

Data Analysis
The school used a computer program to assign students to classes based upon required and elective courses. Therefore, classes were not expected to differ on factors related to attitudes and interactions with persons with disabilities. To determine whether the pretest heightened students' sensitivity to what was being measured, making them more responsive to the intervention, the immediate posttest mean of the students who were pretested (n = 93; posttest mean, 1.56; standard deviation, .44) was compared to the mean of the students who received only the intervention and immediate posttest (n = 49; posttest mean, 1.59; standard deviation, .38). The result was not significant (t = .48; p = .635).

Short-Term Effects
To evaluate the short-term effect of the social studies unit on the twenty-one attitude items, the pretest and immediate posttest means were compared. The immediate posttest score was significantly higher (p= .001; see part a of Table 1). Similarly, the short-term effect of the intervention on contact between nondisabled and disabled students was tested, but there was no significant difference between the two means (p = .12; see part b of Table 1).

Long-Term Effects
A comparison of pretest and six-month follow-up mean scores on attitude items indicated that the significantly higher attitude scores were maintained (p = .042; see part a of Table 2); while for contact items, the mean scores were not significantly different (p = .077; see part b of Table 2). At the time of the study, there were students at the high school who were categorized as having mental retardation, but no students who used wheelchairs. Consequently, when the scores on the five items denoting contact with individuals categorized as having mental retardation were used, and items regarding contact with persons who used wheelchairs were excluded, there was a significant difference in the amount of contact as reported on the pretest and six-month followup (p = .039; see part c of Table 2).

All 142 tenth grade students enrolled in a small urban high school participated in a social studies unit to increase their awareness, understanding, and interaction with peers with disabilities. The unit reviewed the history of treatment of persons with disabilities, emphasized the similarities between nondisabled students and their peers with disabilities, utilized respected high school peers in a panel discussion of their personal experiences of being involved with persons with disabilities, and reviewed the history of segregation and integration of students with disabilities at the high school.

The pretest and posttest comparisons indicated that the social studies unit significantly improved the attitudes of nondisabled students toward persons with disabilities. The results contribute to the evidence that informational programs can effectively improve the attitudes of nondisabled students (Bak and Siperstein 1987; Fiedler and Simpson 1987; Hamre-Nietupski et al. 1989; Reis 1988). The intervention utilized in this study contained components that have proven effective in other research, such as the emphasis on similarities between people (Siperstein and Chatillon 1982; Westervelt and McKinney 1980), group discussion (Gottlieb 1980), videotapes or films about persons with disabilities (Bak and Siperstein 1987; Daily and Halpin 1981; Gottlieb 1980; Siperstein and Bak 1985; Westervelt and McKinney 1980), and active involvement of nondisabled students in the learning process (Hamre-Nietupski et al. 1989; Orlansky 1979).

Another important finding of this study was that the significant improvement in acceptance was still evident six months later. This finding does not agree with some research that has found that attitude change did not endure over a nine-day period (Westervelt and McKinney 1980). The two studies differ in several ways, which may help explain this discrepancy. In Westervelt and McKinney (1980), the intervention involved only the viewing of a thirteen-minute film. Our study involved older students, was longer, and included several additional components that were not present in the Westervelt and McKinney study. In addition, in the school where our study was conducted, students with disabilities were highly visible in being integrated into classes and school activities. Also, students had opportunities to interact informally with their peers with disabilities or to become involved in structured companion and tutoring programs. The visibility of students with disabilities and the opportunities to interact with them may have helped reinforce the information obtained in the social studies unit. It is important to note that although there were ample opportunities for physical interactions in the high school, active mediation (i.e., the social studies unit) was still necessary in order to change attitudes and interaction patterns.

Perhaps the most important result of this study is the reported increase in the amount of contact that nondisabled students had with their peers with disabilities. Although no significant increase in contact was reported at the immediate posttest, this can be explained by the short period of time between treatment and the immediate posttest, which would not permit opportunities for a substantial number of contacts. A significant increase in contact was reported at the six-month followup, as measured by survey items that referred to the types of disabilities evident at the high school at the time of the study. These results could be questioned because they are based upon self reports and because a response bias is more likely in a posttest in this case because the students were more aware of the desirable response. It is interesting, however, that the results showed increased interaction only with students characterized as having mental retardation and not with students who used wheelchairs. At the time of the study, there were no students in the high school who used wheelchairs and, therefore, there was no opportunity for nondisabled students to interact with this subgroup of students with disabilities. This fact would appear to support the veracity of the data.

Interaction between students with and without disabilities is perhaps the most effective approach to increased understanding of individual differences, creation of new friendships, and greater inclusion of students with moderate or severe disabilities in the life of the school. Indeed, such interaction has been shown to result in significant personal and interpersonal growth among nondisabled students (Biklen, Corrigan, and Quick 1989; Helmstetter et al. in press; Peck, Donaldson, and Pezzoli 1990). Unfortunately, interactions don't always naturally occur, especially when students with disabilities are segregated. Consequently, we must resort to efforts that promote understanding and encourage interaction with peers with disabilities. In our study, the social studies unit appeared to encourage some students to interact with their peers with disabilities who were not fully included in the academic and nonacademic life of the school. Without the unit, we suspect that such interactions would not have occurred.

The results of this study, however, must be interpreted cautiously because of several limitations. First, there was no control group, so results at the six-month followup might be attributed to student maturation or to some event that occurred in the interim. Second, students could not be randomly assigned to treatment groups. Random assignment of intact classes to treatment groups does not assure equivalence of the groups. The social studies classes, which were already established, were not grouped by student achievement, aptitude, experience, or other factors that would apparently affect the results. However, some unidentified covarying factor may have existed. Finally, while the students reported an increase in their contacts with persons with disabilities, observation data were not collected to corroborate the self reports. Also, no data were collected on the types and quality of interactions that students had with their peers who had disabilities.

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Robert M. Donaldson is faculty and public school principal, department of educational and counseling psychology, Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Edwin Helmstetter is assistant professor in the department of educational and counseling psychology, Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Jodi Donaldson is special education teacher in the Moscow Public Schools, Moscow, Idaho. Robert West is director of special education for the Moscow School District, Moscow, Idaho. The authors extend special thanks to Dr. Charles A. Peck for his assistance with the design of the study and his feedback on the manuscript, Drs. Toshio Akamine and Karen Swoope for their input concerning the design of the study, and the students, teachers, and administrators who helped implement the study.