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Volume 14

Perceptions of Undergraduate College Students toward Individuals with Physical Disabilities

Ashlyn Dent
Grey Prescott
Jordan Wilson
Karyssa Brinkley
Marian Tabi, PhD*

Georgia Southern University, School of Nursing
Statesboro, Georgia

Key words: Person with disabilities, attitudes, perceptions, college students, research


Purpose: Research indicates that negative attitudes toward persons with disabilities exist which can result in loneliness and isolation. One way to further research to examine attitudes towards persons with disabilities is to study the perceptions of undergraduate students and the perceptions of persons with disabilities.

Methods: Approval for the study was obtained from the university institutional review board. Data were collected using a self-report questionnaire from 200 undergraduate college students from various majors including Nursing, Education, Business, and Other (English, History, and Spanish) classes at a regional Southeast university. Five students with disabilities contacted through the Student Disability Resource Center (SDRC), provided qualitative interviews.

Results: Of the 178 participants, 78.7 percent were female, majority were between 18 and 25 years old ( 96%), majority indicated a positive attitude towards persons with disabilities, and 61 percent had taken a first year experience class on disability. Students that had taken the disability class had favorable attitude toward persons with disabilities. Findings from qualitative interviews supported research that persons with disabilities perceived been “treated differently, pitied and alienated, and judged for absence of a physical impairment.” All students expressed satisfaction with the available resources to enhance their academics and the college experience.

Conclusion: The study findings must be interpreted with caution beyond the study participants. Despite the limitations, a more disability-friendly environment is also an educational tool to increase awareness, tolerance, and acceptance of college persons with disabilities.

Introduction and Background

As nursing students, we take the Florence Nightingale Pledge and are expected to have a non-judgmental, caring mentality for each and every individual we care for “without regard to race, creed, politics, or social status, sparing no effort to conserve life, to alleviate suffering and to promote health. Research indicates that negative attitudes toward persons with disabilities exist. They are often perceived as different and stereotyped as dependent (Herbert, Welsh, Hong, Soo-yong et al, 2014; Barr & Bracchitta, 2008). Research also shows that negative attitudes toward persons with disabilities serve as invisible barriers that can hinder opportunities and health-seeking behaviors. With the legislation to the American’s Disability Act of 1990, it has become increasing important in affording persons with disabilities equal opportunities to participate in society, including procuring education and employment.

It is well documented in the literature of the effect that social environment has on individuals with disabilities. The results of the research of adults with disabilities has shown that “negative feedback from their critical social environment” can very adversely affect their self-esteem, performance, and overall well-being (Barg, Armstrong, Hetz & Latimer, 2010). In addition to a lack of social support, inadequate academic and physical accommodations for individuals with disabilities in the college setting has negatively affected their productivity in school and their self-esteem (Koca-Atabey, Karanci, & Aydemir, 2011). It has been shown that the more positive social interactions a student has with people with disabilities, the more positive their attitudes towards these persons (Barr & Bracchitta, 2008).

Previous studies have shown that there is a positive correlation between the relationship of deleterious viewpoints toward social, psychological, and physical wellbeing (Dinh, Haynes, Holmberg & Ho, 2014). With this knowledge in mind, college campuses can work to devise large quantities of resources to aid students with physical disabilities such as handicap accessible ramps, automatically opening doors, and easily accessible lunch trays in the cafeterias. Koca-Atabey, Nuray Karanci, Dirik, and Aydemir (2011) used their study to highlight the predicaments that disabled college students’ face in developing countries due to lack of accommodating resources. In a developed country such as the United States, colleges and universities should be able to provide extra services for physically disabled students.

Along with making more accommodations readily available, it is also critical that we raise overall awareness. A majority of people may not be aware of their prejudicial attitudes towards people with physical disabilities. Within the United States, it is estimated that about 10-26 percent of college students on a four-year college’s campus have some kind of a disability (Herbert et al., 2014). The graduation rate for these college students with disabilities is much lower than that of students without disabilities for several reasons, including a lack of “social, psychological, and environmental supports” and “lack of fundamental programs and services to support students with disabilities (Herbert et al., 2014).” College students are often hesitant to enroll in the disability student resource centers that college campuses offer because they are afraid of being stigmatized by other students (Hergenrather & Rhodes, 2007; Dinh et al., 2014).

Purpose of Study

Understanding the factors that can hinder the educational success of college persons with disabilities is needed to inform interventions and services to improve their educational outcomes. The purpose of this study was to explore the perceptions of undergraduate college students with and without physical disabilities to identify the factors on which to increase awareness and modify attitudes toward persons with disabilities. The two research questions addressed: (a) what are the perceptions toward persons with disability among undergraduate college students at this university? and (b) what are the perceived challenges of persons with disabilities at this institution?


Research design consisted of quantitative and qualitative methods. Quantitative data were collected from a convenience sample of 178 college students attending a regional Southeast university. Study was approved by the university’s institutional board and procedures were followed to meet ethical standards. Participants were recruited from several majors including nursing, history, English, and Spanish classes with permission from professors. Participants completed a self-reported questionnaire that included demographic information and attitudinal questions on college students with disabilities. Results were analyzed using IBM SPSS 21.0 software program.

The qualitative data were collected from a purposive sample of five college students of at least 18 years of age, each with a physical disability. These students were individually contacted by email through the Student Resources Disabilities Center (SDRC) at this university to have access to participate in our study. In the email sent from the SDRC was a short description of the research and the researcher’s contact information for interested participants. Respondents were emailed an informed consent, demographic questionnaire, and a 3 –item open-ended questionnaire that were completed and returned via email. Anonymity was maintained; there were no face-to-face interviews. The open ended questions were as follows:

1. Do you feel that your peers view you differently due to your physical disability?

2. Have you found it easy to make friends attending this institution? Why or why not?

3. What suggestions can you offer to educate and increase people’s awareness toward persons with disabilities?

Interview questions were transcribed and thematically analyzed. Significant key words and phrases were marked and all that were thematically similar were grouped together and labeled as a category. Three themes emerged – persons with disabilities perceived been (1) treated differently, (2) pitied and alienated, and (3) judged for absence of a physical impairment.


Sample characteristics are presented in Table 1. Majority were female (78.7%) and approximately 61% had taking a class on disability.

Table 1 : Demographic Table

N Percent (N %)
Gender Male 38 21.3%
Female 140 78.7%
Age 18-25 171 96.1%
26-30 3 1.7%
30+ 4 2.2%
Class Freshman 35 19.7%
Sophomore 24 13.5%
Junior 110 61.8%
Senior 9 5.1%
Physical Disability Yes 2 1.1%
No 176 98.9%
Classes about Disability Yes 109 61.2%
No 69 38.8%

Crosstabulation of the variables “taking the class on disability and changed perceptions after taking the class” shown in Table 2 indicated only approximately 12 percent of participants that had taken the class perceived an attitudinal change compared to 19 percent that had not taken the class. Findings indicate most of the participants had a positive attitude toward persons with disability and that the class on disability would not make an attitudinal difference in their perception.

Table 2: Likelihood of a Changed Perception toward People with Physical Disabilities after Taking a Class about Disabilities

Took a Disability Class Change in Perceptions after taking the Disability Class Total
Agree Neutral Disagree
Yes 13 (11.9%) 29 (26.6%) 67 (61.5%) 109 (100%)
No 13 (18.8%) 22 (31.9%) 34 (49.3%) 69 (100%)
Total 26 (14.6%) 51 (38.7%) 101 (56.7%) 178 (100%)

Results of Crosstabulation that compared attitudes of students in different majors toward persons with disabilities are displayed in Table 3. Findings showed that approximately 76 percent of nursing students were likely to befriend students with physical disabilities compared to only 36 percent of students that were business majors.

Table 3: Crosstabulation of Majors and Befriending a Person with Disability

Majors Befriending a Person with Disability Total
Likely Neutral Not Likely
Nursing 78 (76.5%) 17 (16.7%) 7 (6.9%) 102 (100%)
Education 16 (72.7%) 5 (22.7%) 1 (4.5%) 22 (100%)
Business 4 (36.4%) 6 (65.5%) 1 (9.1%) 11 (100%)
Other 26 (60.5%) 12 (27.9%) 5 (11.6%) 43 (100%)
Total 124 (69.7) 40 (22.5%) 14 (7.9%) 178 (100%)

Overall, males were less likely than females to be seen in a social setting with individuals with physical disabilities.

Qualitative Findings

Three themes were extracted from the qualitative data collected from 5 persons with disabilities. They perceived they were (a) treated differently, (b) pitied and alienated, and (c) judged for absence of a physical impairment. These themes are summarized as follows.

Theme 1: Treated Differently

A female sophomore student with Rheumatoid Arthritis, Crohn’s Disease, and a degenerative nerve disorder perceived to be treated differently. She stated “I notice a few questionable faces glancing at me as I come by. Upon learning about my illness, many people view me as contagious or like I could die at any moment while they sit beside me taking notes.” This perception was shared by a male sophomore with Lupus and renal failure who said, “They treat me as if I’m fragile when they find out my disabilities.” A male senior with a ‘bad knee’ and acute gout flair ups said, “They look at me like they feel sorry for me. I just need help like anyone needs help from time to time. Sometimes I am left out of activities and events because of my disability. People just will not invite me because they think I will not be able to handle things.”

Theme 2: Pitied and Alienated

The second theme was that students with physical disabilities do not want to be pitied and excluded, but they would appreciate help when needed. One student said, I want to be treated like anyone else, and if I have a problem regarding my disability I will say so. You do not have to constantly be worried about me because I have learned to live with my disability.” Another student said, “Treat me as you would anyone without a disability. Do not let me needing help sometimes be a reason you treat me different. View me as a normal person who just happens to have an ailment. I will make it known if I am not feeling well.” Another student said, “Accepting differences from wheelchair usage to walking with a limp and offering a helping hand would make the bad days just a little better.”

Theme 3: Judged for lack of Physical Impairment

Students with physical disabilities do not always look like they have a physical disability. Students with chronic illness may not have a physical impairment. For example, one student said, “Autoimmune diseases are ‘invisible illnesses’ which means that my peers do not know that I have a disability unless I choose to disclose this information about myself.” Another said, “Everyone with a disability does not look sick, and I happen to be one of them. I have been approached many times for parking in a handicap space because of this.”

Each of the participants with disability indicated they were satisfied with the resources and accommodations available at the SDRC to help them succeed as a student. One student stated, “I feel as though the SDRC and my professors already do everything that is necessary and possible.” Another said, “The SDRC is more than I could ever dream of and they have truly made my college experience possible. Every need that I have stated they have met.”

Even though the majority of the participants said they did not stigmatize individuals with physical disabilities, there was a small percentage that said they did. According to the quantitative findings, a small percent of participants had a negative attitude towards students with physical disabilities. This small percent can have a large effect on the emotional wellbeing of students with physical disabilities.


One of the main strengths in this study is that participants with physical disabilities were voluntarily recruited from the university’s Student Disability Resource Center (SDRC). Those who participated had an interest and expressed their honest perceptions. Also, the students with physical disabilities had a variety of different physical disabilities that ranged from visible to invisible disorders that allowed for an array of perceptions.

Several limitations, however, exist. Only a small number of students with disabilities responded. The sensitivity and comfort level of discussing disability may have affected the sample size. Data collection was cross sectional and findings beyond the sample should be interpreted with caution. The views and perspectives of students with and/or without disabilities may not represent the views of the general population. The voluntary participation of participants may have been influenced by personal interest. Access to students with disabilities was difficult and thus the use of friend participants may have biased the findings.

In conclusion, college students need to be cognizant of their attitudes towards persons with disabilities. Education and awareness are needed to improve tolerance, inclusion, and acceptance of students with physical disabilities to enhance the college experience. In addition, accommodations such as remote doors on campus and better accessibility to dormitory rooms and ramps are essential. Fostering a disability friendly campus where students can confidently learn and succeed both socially and academically is crucial.


Barg, C.J., Armstrong, B.D., Hetz, S.P., & Latimer, A. E. (2010). Physical Disability, Stigma, and Physical Activity in Children. International Journal of Disability, Development & Education, 57(4), 371-382.

Barr, J. J., & Bracchitta, K. (2008). Effects of contact with individuals with disabilities: Positive attitudes and majoring in education. Journal of Psychology, 142(3), 225-244.

Dinh, K. T., Holmberg, M. D., Ho, I. K., & Haynes, M. C. (2014). The Relationship of prejudicial attitudes to psychological, social, and physical well-being within a sample of college students in the United States. Journal Of Cultural Diversity, 21(2), 56-66.

Herbert, J.T., Welsh, W., Hong, B.S., Soo-yong, B., Atkinson, H.A., & Anne Kurz, C. (2014). Persistence and Graduation of College Students Seeking Disability Support Services. Journal of Rehabilitation, 80(1), 22-32.

Hergenrather, K, & Rhodes, S. (2007). Exploring undergraduate student attitudes toward persons with disabilities: Application of the disability social relationship scale. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, 50(2), 66-75.

Koca-Atabey, M., Nuray Karanci, A., Dirik, G., Aydemir, D. (2011). Psychological wellbeing of Turkish university students with physical impairments: An evaluation within the stress-vulnerability paradigm. International Journal of Psychology, 46 (2), 106-118.