Sport can change public perceptions of people with intellectual disabilities

The London 2012 Paralympics have the potential to change public attitudes towards people with intellectual disabilities, according to research presented in a symposium at the British Psychology Society Annual Conference held in London last week.

Joanna Ferrara and her colleagues from Canterbury Christ Church University asked 120 student volunteers to complete a questionnaire about their attitudes towards people with intellectual disabilities – also known as learning difficulties and previously known as mental handicap. The same students were then asked to read about and watch footage of elite athletes with intellectual disabilities performing at a Paralympic level of sport and complete the questionnaires again.

The researchers found that the students’ attitudes towards people with intellectual disabilities were more positive regarding beliefs about empowerment.  Attitudes were influenced by the amount of prior contact respondents had had with people with intellectual disabilities. This adds to previous research suggesting that the more positive contact people have with those with intellectual disabilities, the more likely they are to have more favourable attitudes.

Professor Jan Burns from Canterbury Christ Church University, who has convened the symposium, says: “It is rare for people with intellectual disabilities to be portrayed in the international media doing something that is beyond the competence of the watching millions. So the inclusion of athletes with such a disability provides a unique opportunity to influence public attitudes on a grand scale.”

Another paper in the symposium looks at the possible benefits to people with intellectual disabilities themselves of taking part in sport.

The other paper in the session looks at how the inclusion of athletes with intellectual disabilities has moved on since the events at the Paralympics in Sydney, where the victorious Spanish basketball included athletes who were not intellectually disabled at all. As a result, the whole category was removed from subsequent Games. The paper outlines the eligibility and classification processes now in place for the London 2012 Paralympics.

Professor Burns a Professor of Clinical Psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University and is Head of Eligibility for the International Sports Federation for Para-Athletes with an Intellectual Disability. In this position she oversees the eligibility processes for those athletes with intellectual disabilities who wish to compete at an elite level.

In 2011 Professor Burns received a British Psychological Society Public Engagement Grant for her work to promote online resources about athletes with intellectual disabilities.