The 2021 Survey of Public Perceptions of the Disabled

Individual in wheelchair taking survey from interviewer

2021 Public Perceptions of the Disabled

It is harder to crack prejudice than an atom.This quote from Albert Einstein is recognizable among many individuals with disabilities, who have been the victims of an unrelenting prejudice and discrimination that persists at all levels of our society.

It was with great hope that the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 would open the doors of inclusion and opportunity to individuals with disabilities. It was a major piece of legislation that included disability as one of the recognized sources of discrimination, along with “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin” as represented in the Civil Rights Act or 1964.

Well, it has been 31 years since the passing of that landmark legislation. What has happened? The disabled now have a legal avenue should they be the subjects of discrimination in the workplace or access to public transportation and government buildings. The lives of many disabled individuals have improved since this legislation passed. Still, the problems with public perceptions of the disabled are deeply troubling.

Numerous articles highlight the continuing discrimination that individuals with disabilities experience in everyday life. Stephanie Pappas highlighted in one of her articles that true equity for the disabled is elusive, particularly for low-income disabled individuals and individuals of color.

Considering that the disabled have greater medical needs than the non-disabled, it is important that access to medical care is not an unreasonable burden. Unfortunately, medical interactions between staff and the disabled are often a problem. Wilson and Scior, in a literature review of attitudes toward people with disabilities, found negative implicit attitudes toward the disabled. This literature review indicated that these negative attitudes included those of health-care professionals.

In another study published in 2019, Harris and Gould found that most disabled individuals experienced discrimination in employment. This discrimination included both attitudinal and structural barriers to inclusion. Many disabled individuals are reluctant to reveal their disabilities because of fear of the consequences should they do so.

It was also in 2019 that disability discrimination complaints topped race discrimination at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. According to Jeff Clabaugh’s review of these complaints, companies are doing a marginal job in addressing disability inclusion. Additionally, the Society for Human Resources Management reported that less than 15 percent of companies have disability-inclusion initiatives.

Considering the prejudice and discrimination experienced by the disabled, Cogentica developed a survey to measure attitudes toward the disabled in 2020. This survey was again administered in 2021. We just concluded this second yearly survey on how the public views disabled people. Here are the findings gathered from the 452 respondents who participated in this national survey during October 2021. Cogentica sampled respondents nationwide and included both disabled individuals and non-disabled. A summary of our findings follows.

Discrimination against the disabled

  • In the past two years, 71.0% of respondents said they had witnessed some discrimination against the disabled. For the disabled respondents, that percentage was 87.1 as compared to 51.4% for the non-disabled respondents.
  • 26.3% of respondents said that they had experienced a great deal or a lot of discrimination against the disabled either to themselves, their child, or somebody else. For the disabled, that percentage was 49.4 as compared to the non-disabled percentage of 6.2.
  • The most common form of discrimination or prejudice against the disabled is not acknowledging their presence (42.7% of respondents).
  • The second most usual form of discrimination against the disabled is making fun of an individual’s disability (38.9% of respondents).
  • Among the reasons and comments offered by respondents, many said that they experienced systemic discrimination due to a lack of health care, housing options, and employment opportunities.

Public perceptions of the disabled

  • When respondents were asked if they believe that people harbor prejudices against the disabled, a total of 92.7% answered yes.
  • Respondents mention that it can be difficult for non-disabled people to interact with the disabled, due to differences in how independent and self-reliant they want to be.
  • While some disabled people may resent others for offering them help, others will politely decline or even be welcome to the idea.

Eliminating prejudices and discrimination

  • When asked if respondents believe that there is adequate research and services available to eliminate prejudices and discrimination against the disabled, 19.7% answered “none at all.”
  • The majority (34.7%) answered that there is little research and services available to eliminate prejudices and discrimination against the disabled.
  • Only 11.1% believed that there is a great deal of research and services.
  • 47.8% believe that organizations and the public do not realize the vast number of differences and needs among the disabled.
  • 38.9% believe that organizations and the public disregard the emotional needs of the disabled.
  • 45.8% believe that there is too much focus on an individual’s limitations due to a disability rather than their abilities.
  • 46.7% believe that organizations and the public are poorly informed about the needs and abilities of the disabled.
  • Among the comments, respondents mention that there is a lack of public visibility of disabilities which makes it difficult for people to see and understand what needs the disabled have.

What do people want to see improved in the future when it comes to disabilities?

  • When asked about the services to the disabled that people would like to see offered or improved, many respondents quote access to transportation and healthcare.
  • Respondents who did not have a disability frequently mention more accessibility options such as ramps and walkways.
  • Access to more training and employment opportunities for disabled people is also a common mention among the comments.


It is apparent that while there may be positive developments nationwide in improving access to the disabled and in the workplace, it is not enough for a developed country such as ours. There are just too many negative attitudes toward the disabled and they do not deserve treatment as second-class citizens. It is obvious that companies, politicians, and the public must do more to foster inclusion to the disabled and to provide avenues for personal enrichment and advancement. It is just not happening at an acceptable level and has not for several decades.

Jumping back to Einstein’s quote “It is harder to crack prejudice than an atom,” it is apparent that message is emphasized by the survey results. Astoundingly, over 90 percent of the respondents believed individuals harbor prejudices against the disabled. Personally, as a disabled individual myself, I believe that the disabled must organize just as Black Americans successfully did in the sixties. If 25% of the population is disabled, that constitutes not only a major voting bloc, but also a strong economic force. The strength of the disabled as contributing members of our society needs to be demonstrated though their vigorous and coordinated activism.

What can we do about the prejudice and discrimination that exists toward the disabled? Finding the correct path here is critical not only for the disabled but for our country. The disabled represent a substantial percentage of our population and negative attitudes toward the disabled are no longer warranted among people participating in the most successful democracy in the world. From my perspective, the roots of prejudice and discrimination begin with the education and socializing process of our youth. It is important that the process of inclusion that is occurring among our younger population embraces not only race and gender, but also disability. This involves not only eliminating the prejudices against someone who is different mentally, physically, or socially, but eliminating the physical barriers that limit inclusion.

Not only must we eliminate physical barriers that prevent access to the disabled, but we need to encourage the development of mindsets among the non-disabled (including older individuals) to socialize in a way that provides physical access and inclusion to the disabled. Plan events that will not create problems for the disabled. Every young person should be taught inclusion in developing plans that involve disabled friends. Keep in mind that most disabled individuals with mobility problems have experience exclusion because of their disabilities.

Many older individuals of all races have implicit biases toward the disabled. This prejudice is frequently expressed without our conscious knowledge. Unfortunately, the disabled easily perceive such prejudice. In fact, you can say they are experts in this area. We can all modify implicit biases once they are uncovered and shown to us. Even the disabled have their implicit biases toward others. Many non-disabled individuals are guilty of expressing ableism in their actions and words without consciously being aware that they are doing so. Education is the easiest way to diminish these implicit biases. Read about ableism and examples of ableism and you will find one of those examples likely corresponds to one of your own actions.

Yes, we have a long way to go to eliminate prejudice and discrimination in our society. It damages the framework of our society and our relations with one another. We must be more constructive in our relationships rather than destructive. The key is to look within ourselves to solve this problem because we are the source of the problem. We must put aside political, racial, cultural, and social biases if we are to effectively understand and appreciate each other. If we truly develop intellectually, emotionally, and socially, we will see that many of these differences are petty and imprison our souls rather than letting us be free to appreciate the differences in each other.


Participate in Survey Research

Sign up to get emails about research opportunities. (You can change your preferences anytime.)

Topics I Like

Email me about:

We don’t want to spam you! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Leave a Reply