Under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, people with a learning disability have a fundamental right to full and active participation and inclusion in society (United Nations, 2006)
Up until the 1970s many adults and children with a learning disability were confined to large institutions. Since then, large institutions have been closed and almost all adults and children with a learning disability live in the community. However, despite the physical integration, many individuals still feel socially excluded and face stigma and discrimination in their everyday lives (Scior & Werner, 2015). People with a learning disability may face problems in accessing equal opportunities for healthcare, housing, education, employment and social pursuits. For example:
- Children with special educational needs (SEN) are twice as likely to be bullied regularly than children with no SEN (IoE London, 2014)
- In 2017/18 only 6% of adults with a learning disability known to their local authority were in paid employment in England (NHS Digital, 2018), compared to 76% of people aged 16 - 64 in the general population (ONS, 2019).
Stigma and discrimination can become internalized in people with a learning disability resulting in ‘self-stigma’. This is associated with higher levels of psychological distress and lower quality of life (Ali et al., 2015; Pelleboer-Gunnink et al., 2019).
The Disability Perception Gap
Scope identifies the difference in attitudes of non-disabled people and the reality of disabled people’s experiences as the ‘disability perception gap’ (Dixon et al., 2018).
It has been suggested that misconceptions about the capabilities of people with a learning disability may be widespread (Scior & Werner, 2015). Misconceptions and negative attitudes can be a barrier to people with a disability living the lives they want (Dixon et al., 2018).
For example, just under a third (32%) of respondents in the 2017 British Attitudes Survey thought that disabled people are not as productive as non-disabled people. This belief may be a factor which contributes to the disparity in employment rates between people with a learning disability and the general population (Dixon et al., 2018).
Increasing positive attitudes
Interventions designed to challenge negative attitudes towards people with a learning disability often involve an element of education which attempts to increase knowledge of learning disability (Scior & Werner, 2015). Interventions which use educational approaches have shown some promising outcomes (Li et al., 2014; Seewooruttun & Scior, 2014).
Studies which increase contact (direct or indirect) with people with a learning disability show positive effects on attitudes (MacMillan et al., 2014; Seewooruttun & Scior, 2014; Scior & Werner, 2015). These approaches can include training delivered by people with a learning disability, tutoring programmes, experiential tasks, and indirect contact through film presentations delivered online and exposure to images that contradict stereotypes (Seewooruttun & Scior, 2014). However, studies have been limited by small sample sizes.
Studies which include both direct contact and education on learning disability have also shown positive outcomes, particularly with people who have had no prior contact with people with a learning disability (Lawson et al., 2017).
Self-advocacy groups allow members to address stigmatised social identities and provides opportunities to engage with ideas about rights, empowerment and greater equality (Clarke et al., 2015; Anderson & Bigby, 2017; Fenn & Scior, 2019). Individuals can gain a variety of benefits from self-advocacy groups, including increased confidence, changes in social and self-identity, increased social connections and relationships, mutual support, and increased opportunities for occupation and activities (Clarke et al., 2015; Fenn & Scior, 2019).