We need to talk about disability in psychology classes

Most psychology courses don't teach about our largest minority group: disabled people. New research shows that covering disability in psych classes can reduce ableism.

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Psychology is valuable as a college major or even as a one-off elective because it teaches us about ourselves and our social world, developing psychologically literate citizens. Psychology prepares us to interact with diverse people in our daily lives, communities, and careers. Chances are, even in the most basic psychology class, you learned about development across the lifespan and stereotyping and prejudice toward ethnic and racial minorities.

But did you learn about people with disabilities, the largest minority group in America, an identity that will surely affect you or a close loved one at some point in your life? Probably not, because it is barely mentioned in most psychology courses.

A Forgotten Minority

Our analysis of the top undergraduate universities in the country shows that fewer than 35 percent offer even one psychology course that focuses on topics outside of psychiatric and cognitive disability, such as physical (the most common in America), sensory, chronic health, or intellectual disability.

Furthermore, most psychology courses take a medical model perspective to disability and include little social model content. The medical model treats disability as a pathology within the individual while the social model points to society as a major cause of disability. Large subfields of psychology focus on the social construction of minority groups and prejudice, so it is especially surprising that psychology is teaching these outdated assumptions about disability. This lack of representation continues at the graduate level and beyond. Only about 2 percent of psychology faculty at all APA-accredited programs documented a disability.

Representation Fights Ableism

Last month, we published research comparing disability attitude change across three undergraduate elective psychology classes. One class included education about disability from a social model perspective and had an instructor with a disability. The second class had an instructor with a disability but did not cover disability. The third class, a control group, did not cover disability or have a disabled instructor. As expected, we found that the first class had the most positive change in disability attitudes, followed by the second class, while the third class showed no change.

These findings are a promising indication that disability representation from a social model may reduce ableism, or prejudice toward people with disabilities, yet more work needs to be done. Future work should include a class with disability content and a nondisabled instructor to disentangle the potentially powerful effect of having a disabled instructor. Furthermore, disability should not be relegated to electives; rather, it should be represented in all psychology coursework, especially Introductory Psychology, which serves a broader student population and more than 1 million undergraduates each year. 

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