Pelleboer, Hannah A. (1,2); van Weeghel, Jaap (1,3,4); Embregts, Petri J. C. M. (1,2) (2017). 'Public stereotypes towards people with intellectual disabilities: a negative social conversion factor at play' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


More than a billion people around the world (15%) experience some form of disability. Wherever they live, people with disabilities generally receive poorer quality of healthcare, lower income and less educational opportunities. Also, poverty as well as deficient social networks are more frequent (WHO, 2011). This group of people with disabilities includes people with intellectual disabilities (ID), which affects about 1-2% of the population. ID refers to a main disability in the area of thinking and adaptive functioning. Inequalities for people with intellectual disabilities exist worldwide in both low- and high income countries. Although high-income countries seem to have relatively good resources, social policies and legislation concerning people with disabilities, people with ID still experience inequalities in monetary access, access to health care, work,  inclusive education and consequently to inclusion in society (e.g., WHO, 2011). In fact, people with disabilities (e.g., ID) experience double deprivation: they experience not only deprivation of for example income, but additionally they need more income and support to achieve the same level of wellbeing as non-disabled people (Sen, 2009, p. 258).

Public stigma towards people with ID is one of the main causes for inequality that requires political and societal action (e.g., Trani et al., 2015; WHO, 2011). Stigma can act as a social conversion factor that plays a role in the conversion from characteristics of the good (e.g., being able to participate in community activities) to people with ID’s individual functioning (e.g., actual participation in a community activity) (Robeyns, 2005). People with ID report experiences of stigmatization in the community, for example by people in the general public who are talking down on them, looking at them in a funny way, or  making them feel embarrassed. Moreover, people with ID report negative attitudes from healthcare professionals in general hospitals, and from non-disabled colleagues at the work place. These negative attitudes may influence their possibility to convert resources into capabilities, for example by reducing motivation and self-efficacy concerning work, health visits, or joining community activities and by lowering their possibilities for self-determination.

However, as compared to for example stigmatization of people with mental illness, little is known about public stigmatization of people with ID (Scior, 2011). Therefore, this study was conducted to explore the public stigma towards people with ID in the Netherlands. In this presentation the specific stereotypes of people with ID are presented  as well as results about the relationships of these stereotypes with the public’s preferred social distance, helping behavior, and intention to impose restrictions in the social domain (e.g., not being allowed to have driver’s license) towards people with ID.

Method: A total number of 892 members of the Dutch general public participated in a cross-sectional survey conducted in February 2015. Participants were members of an existing panel (i.e., Longitudinal Internet Studies for the Social sciences, LISS panel) comprising a large sample representative for all Dutch inhabitants. The LISS panel is administered by CentERdata (Tilburg University, The Netherlands), a research institute specialized in quantitative data collection. Stereotypes were measured using a unipolar trait rating scale consisting of 18 items. Respondents were asked to rate their agreement about statements describing people with ID, for example, ‘people with an intellectual disability are happy’. Items were rated on a 5-point Likert type scale ranging from 1 = completely disagree to 5 = completely agree. In addition, an open question was presented at the end of the questionnaire asking participants to provide a characterization of persons with an intellectual disability. Furthermore, social distance (i.e., the desire to avoid contact with people with ID), was measured with a valid and reliable 5-point Likert type scale (e.g., ‘What if you know that someone has an intellectual disability, how willing are you to spend an evening socializing with that person?) (Whatley, 1959). Helping behavior refers to the likelihood of withholding help from people with ID. This construct was measured with 4 items on a 5-point Likert type scale (e.g., If I were a landlord, I probably would rent an apartment to someone with an intellectual disability). Finally, the intention to impose restrictions to people with ID was measured by 3 items on a 5 point Likert-type scale (e.g., ’When someone receives a diagnosis of intellectual disability, his or her driver’s license should be revoked forever.’).The stereotype scale was analyzed using exploratory factor analysis. The open stereotype question was analyzed using a general inductive approach. Preliminary analyses of the relationship between stereotype factors and social distance and helping behavior were conducted using hierarchical linear regression analyses.

In this presentation we will demonstrate the public’s stigmatizing attitudes (i.e., stereotypes and perceptions) towards people with ID. Also, we discuss and present the relationship of the stereotypes with the public’s preferred social distance towards people with ID and their intention to withhold help and impose restriction to people with ID. We will discuss its potential impact as a social conversion factor on capabilities of people with ID. Also, more broadly, we will discuss the position of specific aspects of stigma research within in a capability framework (i.e., structural discrimination, public stigma as a social conversion factor, and self-stigma as adaptive preferences). Future research is discussed which should focus on the potential impact of stigmatizing attitudes on inequality for people with ID as well as on how anti-stigma intervention can improve equality. Participatory research methods would be powerful in identifying how and when stigmatizing attitudes impact the capabilities of people with ID in different circumstances.  

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