Perception About Inclusion

Considering the misperceptions about the capabilities of people with intellectual disabilities, it is perhaps not surprising that across countries surveyed, members of the public felt that integrating individuals with intellectual disabilities into workplaces or schools would create more accidents, cause discipline problems, lower productivity and otherwise negatively affect those around them.3

Interestingly, while the majority of people hold these and other misperceptions about individuals with intellectual disabilities, they also simultaneously recognize that the negative attitudes of others and the media constitute an obstacle to the inclusion of such individuals. In addition to negative attitudes, members of the public also identify the lack of school resources, lack of job training and lack of community-based services as other factors that limit inclusion. Of these factors, the lack of school resources is most often perceived as a problem (78% called it a “major obstacle” while 17% called it a “minor obstacle”). Regarding lack of job training, 76% thought it was a major obstacle and 19% a minor obstacle; lack of community resources received such responses from 67% and 24% respectively of those surveyed.3

Youth studies represent a more promising outlook concerning inclusion, however. In the Special Olympics middle school study in Japan, over 70% felt students with intellectual disabilities should be educated in mainstream schools. This compares to less than 40% of Japanese adults who responded similarly. Additionally, Japanese students were twice as likely as adults to say students with intellectual disabilities should be included in regular classrooms, not segregated classrooms.3 In the United States, three-fourths of middle school students felt that inclusion would have beneficial effects such as encouraging diversity and acceptance of others.4

Another promising result found in Special Olympics research is that attitudes of both adults and students improve significantly with involvement with Special Olympics.6 (See Toolkit section “Impact of Special Olympics: Community".)

Responses were mixed, however, when young people were asked about specific examples of inclusion. A majority of Japanese youth, for example, believe students with intellectual disabilities would be able to participate in classes like art and gym (84% and 73%, respectively); few feel the same about more academic subjects like language and math (40% and 20% respectively).7

In addition to this physical inclusion, another critical aspect is social – are students with disabilities accepted into the social world of their peers? For youth with intellectual disabilities, it appears the reality of social inclusion is a long way off. While youth around the world are willing to interact with students with intellectual disabilities in superficial ways (like saying hello or lending a pencil), they are much less willing to interact in more personal ways such as spending time with them outside of school or inviting a student with intellectual disabilities out with other friends.4, 7 These attitudes are translated to actual behavior – across countries studied, very few youth have friends with intellectual disabilities.

Studies indicate that young people with intellectual disabilities are more likely to be bullied than their typically developing peers.8 This abuse is punctuated by the extreme social isolation they face, with youth attitude surveys indicating that less than 1/3 of students would invite a classmate with intellectual disability to their home or talk to them about personal matters.9 These types of treatment and attitudes create negative environments that severely impact a whole school climate.

In response, Special Olympics has partnered with the U.S. Government to offer Project UNIFY in schools across the country. Through Project UNIFY, over 1,700,000 youth from more than 3,000 schools in 45 states have been directly exposed to our programming, creating a youth-led movement that is shaping whole-school environments where all students feel welcomed, included and connected.


1. Harris J. “Intellectual disability: understanding its development, causes, classification, evaluation, and treatment.” Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2006.

2. Siperstein G, Norins J, Corbin S, Shriver T. “Multinational study of attitudes toward individuals with intellectual disabilities.” Washington, D.C.: Special Olympics International; 2003.

3. Siperstein G, Norins J, Corbin S.. “Multinational study of youth attitudes toward students with intellectual disabilities.” Washington, D.C.: Special Olympics International; 2005.

4. Siperstein G, Parker R, Norins Bardon, J. Widaman K. “A national study of youth attitudes toward the inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities.” Exceptional Children 2007;73(4):435-455.

5. Pardun C, Corbin S, Engstrom K. “Changing attitudes, changing the world: media’s portrayal of people with intellectual disabilities.” Washington, D.C.: Special Olympics International; 2005.

6. Widaman K, Siperstein G. “Development of an exposure gradient to assess impact of Special Olympics on attitudes.” Davis, CA and Boston, MA: University of California-Davis and University of Massachusetts-Boston; 2005.

7. Siperstein G, Norins J, Corbin S, Engstrom K. “Changing attitudes, changing the world: a study of youth attitudes about intellectual disabilities.” Washington, D.C.: Special Olympics International; 2005.

8. Siperstein, G. N., Parker, R.C., Norins Bardon, J., & Widaman, K. F. (2007). A National Study of Youth Attitudes toward
the Inclusion of Students with Intellectual Disabilities. Exceptional Children, 73, 435-455.

9. Carter, B. B., & Spencer, V. G. (2006). The fear factor: Bullying and students with disabilities. International Journal of Special Education, 21(1), 11-23.

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