Changing attitudes towards disability: What works

Our changing attitudes research aims to understand how different messaging can change attitudes to disability. We look at what does and does not work.

Our focus is on disability representation in the media and communications.

Principles to support attitudinal change

The media and advertising have a powerful role in improving attitudes.

The messaging that improves attitudes can be counterintuitive.

In this research, we tested ways to change attitudes to see what worked. We found the following principles:

  • raising the status of disabled people
  • sharing stories and personal experiences
  • encouraging people to think about how they would feel facing inequality. But not asking people to imagine being a disabled person.
  • taking care when talking about injustice and using facts and figures

Raise the status of disabled people

Representing disabled people positively can raise their status and can improve attitudes.

For example, showing a disabled person who is good at their job. Showing someone with responsibilities in the community, or as a good parent or friend.

Showing status as exceptional, such as receiving an award.

Disabled people can face negative stereotypes, such as low competence. This can lead to pity.

Positive representations can avoid creating pity. This applies to talking about inequality, unfair treatment, and other negative experiences.

According to our research. Messages that raised the status of disabled people were better at improving attitudes. This increased perceptions of competence and increased support for disability equality.

When developing messages, it is important to consider these factors.

  • Avoid suggesting that the person is exceptional by overcome their condition or impairment.
  • Avoid showing completing everyday tasks as inspiring. Instead, focus on highlighting the story and accomplishments of disabled people.

Sharing personal stories

The story of an individual person’s experience can help change attitudes.

Existing research found that personal stories had more impact than a generic one. Or snippets from lots of people.

In our research, we tested messaging that featured a story. This included a person’s feeling of injustice. Both a disabled and non-disabled audience could relate to this feeling, creating empathy. Even an emotional connection.

This message positively affected attitudes.

Looking from another person’s perspective

Perspective-taking involves imagining the perspective of someone else. There are many ways to put this in place, some of which can backfire.

We asked the audience to imagine how the unfair treatment of a disabled person would make them feel. We asked them to think about the experience of the specific disabled person in the story. This may give them a deeper understanding of the injustices faced by disabled people.

Our research has shown this approach was the most effective at improving attitudes.

  • Increasing people’s perception of disabled people’s competence.
  • Making people more likely to look for information on equality for disabled people.

Asking an audience to imagine unfair treatment may lead to ‘self-persuasion’. When someone begins to construct their own arguments.

Encouraging people to think about their feelings in similar situations, helps generate empathy. These factors can motivate non-disabled people to support efforts to address inequality.

Evidence suggests this makes personal stories an effective way of changing attitudes.

Existing research on the use of perspective-taking has focused on other marginalised groups.

Please note, perspective-taking is different from “disability simulation” exercises. Where physical barriers or inhibitors simulate the effect of a condition or impairment. This is unlikely to improve attitudes towards disabled people. It's not about imagining having a condition or impairment.

Talking about injustice and how we use facts and figures

We need to be careful when talking about:

  • Injustice
  • presenting facts and figures about disabled people and their families

Using statistics

Using statistics alone can make experiences of disabled people difficult to relate to. This can have unintended consequences for attitudes.

Being factual

Facts serve an important purpose, but we should be careful how we use them.

Factual messaging had no impact on attitudes. It was the only message that reduced perceived competence. It did not make the audience more likely to look for disability equality information. And reinforced stereotypes.

But it did increase support for equality - like all the other messages we tested .

Highlighting injustice

Highlighting injustice also decreased the likelihood of people seeking information about disability equality. And again, could reinforce the perception disabled people are less competent.

These messages can create strong negative emotions, like feeling sad, concerned, or angry. Even guilty.

Campaigners and the media should exercise caution when focusing on injustice. This may have unintended consequences.

But disabled people and their families continue to face significant injustice. We should show this. When talking about injustice or using facts and figures. We recommend raising status and sharing personal stories alongside facts and figures.

For example, for discrimination in the workplace. Show the disabled person’s skill in their job. Include their personal story.

This, with statistics and the injustice will be more effective at changing attitudes.


We found individual stories and raising the status of disabled people improved attitudes. But we need to be careful when showing injustice or using facts and figures on their own.

Raising awareness of injustice and factual accuracy is important. But needs to create empathy, not pity.

Applying this new research, we can begin to change attitudes towards disabled people.

We want this pioneering research to have practical uses. We hope these findings give some guidance on what works.

Accessibility and inclusive design

We should always aim for accessibility. But we should not stop there.

Accessibility is about ensuring disabled people can access our content, products, services. Inclusive design goes further. It gives you the chance to design with diversity, not just for it.

Inclusive design is a process. When we design for inclusivity, we are trying to think about the needs of as many people as possible. You’re including diverse experiences that lead to new and exciting possibilities. You include things you might never have thought about.

One of the best ways to be inclusive is to keep everything as simple as possible. When you are writing content, this means that you should:

  • use simple language
  • keep your sentences short
  • avoid metaphors
  • avoid or explain jargon

Use the active voice instead of the passive voice. For example: “I sent the document” rather “the document will be sent”.

After carefully planning and creating your product, you should test it. This will help you get feedback to improve accessibility and inclusivity

Our research method

The research aimed to test messages that could change attitudes towards disabled people. The goal was to gather insights for future media communication campaigns. It focused on text-based messages and was designed to be relevant to a wide range of contexts.

Our approach

We tested 7 communication approaches. Using an online experiment with over 5,000 people.

This assessed which messages were the most effective at changing attitudes.

To achieve this, we:

  • conducted a literature review to understand existing evidence
  • looked at the different messages used to reduce negative attitudes towards disabled people

We then designed messages based on this, using co-design workshops with disabled people and Scope colleagues.

The message categories were:

  • perspective-taking
  • exceptional positive representation
  • factual
  • highlighting injustice
  • things in common
  • behaviour change
  • humour

We tested those messages through an online experiment using 5,498 participants. The sample was nationally representative in terms of:

  • gender
  • region
  • ethnicity
  • income
  • education
  • age for the UK population

Random allocation ensured that participants saw 1 of 7 messages or no message at all, the control group.

Measuring the impact of messaging

We measured the attitudes and behaviours we want to change.

Those attitudes were both explicit and implicit.

Explicit attitudes:

  • Perceived competence. Disabled people may be perceived as more dependent than others. This can manifest as ‘pity’.
  • Fear. People may avoid speaking to disabled people for fear of saying or doing something wrong. Or they may fear the conversation might become uncomfortable and awkward.
  • Otherness. People may think that disabled people are not the same as everyone else. This can increase prejudice towards disabled people.
  • Support for equal rights and access in society. Supporting policy and legislation that improves equal rights for disabled people are important. And is crucial for achieving social change. For example, greater public funding for welfare and disability benefits.

Implicit attitudes: refer to unconscious attitudes about disabled people. They are difficult to measure and change.

The outcomes of participants who viewed each of the 7 messages were compared to those in the control group.

Responses from disabled people were compared to non-disabled people. Using separate regressions for disabled and non-disabled people.

Messaging test examples

Here are some example extracts that we tested.

Note Perspective-taking

Sarah loves working in HR. She is a great fit for the job:

  • she works hard
  • she is positive, friendly and a team player.

However, imagine if as soon as you say “I’m disabled” in a job interview, people start to question whether you can do the job. She has often experienced disbelief and ignorance about her being disabled. How would you feel if you were Sarah?


Improved overall attitudes the most. Increased the chance of clicking on a link to find out how to support disabled people’s equality.


  1. personal story
  2. perspective was relatable (unfair treatment)
  3. positive representation of a disabled person
  4. question may have encouraged ‘self-persuasion’


Demonstrates the impact of perspective-taking on attitudes towards disabled people. Personal relatable stories that encourage self-persuasion likely to be the most effective.

Note Exceptional positive representation 

Superhuman champion disabled swimmer Emma Richards has been ruling the waves since 2008. Richards has won a total of 5 Paralympic gold medals, winning her first at the age of just 13.

She is disabled and has been interested in swimming since the age of five. Richards was the youngest British athlete at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, and won gold medals in the 100 meters freestyle and 400 meters freestyle. She is superhuman!


This messaging type was second best at improving overall attitudes.

This included improving perceived competence of disabled people and support for disability equality. Potential risks with exceptional representation being too elite, did not emerge.


  1. personal story
  2. positive representation of disabled person


Stories that raise the status of disabled people seem to be effective. But elevating people’s status to something unattainable, is not recommended.

Note Factual

1 in 5 people in the UK are disabled. That is about 14.1 million of us – including half of people aged over 65.

Many of those people travel for pleasure, despite two-thirds of disabled people saying they have experienced problems using public transport in the last year. Disabled people routinely struggle to have their access needs met, and trying to organise a trip away comes with significant additional burdens, including a substantial investment of time and energy into extra layers of planning, and often additional costs.

Surveys showed 23% of non-travelling disabled people found travel “so stressful it’s not worth it” and 22% found it “just too hard”. In fact, 30% of disabled people say that difficulties with public transport reduced their independence.


No impact on overall attitudes and decreased perceived competence. This was the only message to increase the measure of fear, as well as producing the highest ‘guilt’ measurement in the testing.


Facts and statistics are less persuasive than stories, especially in emotive or threatening contexts.


Relying on factual or statistical information is unlikely to be persuasive for most people. Embedding them in a personal story could be more effective.

Note Highlighting injustice

“We had to move. The bullying had become so severe that Ben would no longer leave the house.”

Ben, who is disabled, was just 15 when his life was ruined by bullies.

“When we moved house, Ben was desperate to make friends with the local children,” explains his mum, Charlotte.

“But he often returned home with spit on him or the tyres of his bike deflated. On some days he was chased by a group of children until he reached the safety of home.”

Ben couldn’t understand why the other children didn’t want to be his friend


Slightly improved overall attitudes. Although decreased the perception of competence. This message invoked the highest ‘sad’, ‘angry’ and ‘concerned’ indicators in the test. Also, the lowest likely message type to be repeatedly viewed by the audience.


May have elicited pity and the negative emotional response may have led to avoidance.


Not all personal stories are effective, suggests a positive representation is also required. Campaigners need to be careful of the unintended effects of focusing only on injustice.