Children’s Understanding of Disabilities
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Jones, S. (2021) Children’s Understanding of Disabilities. In: Clough, B. & Herring, J. (eds.) Disability, Care and Family Law. Abingdon: Routledge.
Since the publication of the Green Paper, Excellence for All Children (DfEE, 1997), concerning the education of children with disabilities, there has been an accelerating trend towards inclusive schooling in the UK. These changes mean that all children are more likely to encounter people with disabilities. Commensurately, there is a burgeoning psychological literature on the promotion of positive attitudes between people with and without disabilities in classrooms, and the community. Key to the promotion of positive attitudes is an awareness of the development of children’s understanding of disability. Research shows that two key factors underpin and enhance children’s understanding of disability: (a) cognitive development, and (b) social contact with people with a disability. In this regard, cognitive development leads to a more nuanced understanding with age, which might move from seeing disabled children as “ill” towards greater understanding of stereotypes and social barriers around disability. At the same time, peer interactions in the classroom, and vicarious contact, for example, through media channels, can influence children’s understandings, and in turn their responses towards peers with disabilities, in diverse ways. This chapter first reviews the international psychological research evidence surrounding children’s developing understanding of disability with age, covering physical, social, and intellectual disabilities. It then examines how cognitive- and social-developmental factors interact to form a child’s understanding and attitude towards disability, from the perspective of both children with, and without disabilities. Finally, it considers how this knowledge might inform interpretations of legislation aimed at providing a positive and inclusive classroom environment for all children, in practice.