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Teaching evaluations of persons with disabilities differ according to the nature of the disability.

In order to be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, a person must have "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; a record of such an impairment; or [be] regarded as having such an impairment" (42 U.S.C. [sections] 12102(2)). The research on attitudes toward those with disabilities has typically focused on physical (e. g., paralysis, paraplegia) and mental (e.g., drug addiction, emotional disturbance) impairments recognizable by the general public (e. g., Bailey, 1991; Czajka & DeNisi, 1988; Hastorf, Northcraft, & Picciotto, 1979). An often overlooked but common mental impairment is a learning disability (LD), defined as a group of disorders that influence the acquisition and use of listening, reading, writing, and reasoning abilities (see Meintz, 1993, for an overview of types of LDs). Although LDs are explicitly covered under the ADA, they present particular difficulty when applying its regulations, in part because of the limited understanding of LDs.

There is presently a lack of research examining attitudes toward employees with learning disabilities. One reason for this may be that, in the field of education, a clear consensus about the nature of learning disabilities is lacking. Some research suggests that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish a child with an LD from one who is an underachiever and this, in turn, has led some people to doubt whether learning disabilities really exist (Kavale, Forness, & Benders, 1987). Those not in education have even less knowledge about what learning disabilities are and how they can affect a person's ability to comprehend information. Until recently, the idea that adults may suffer from learning disabilities was usually ignored. With the passage of the ADA, however, employers are becoming more aware of the needs of the disabled population, and adults with learning disabilities are finally being recognized (President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, 1986 (now called the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities)). Anderson, Kazmierski, and Cronin (1995) identify the specific provisions under which an individual with a learning disability is covered by the ADA.

However, the law does not necessarily dictate or change attitudes. Given equivalent performance, employers may have less confidence in an LD-worker's knowledge and ability to perform a job compared to an employee without such a disability (Grossman, 1992). The purpose of the current study was to determine if admission of a learning disability elicited less favorable teaching evaluations than either a physical disability or no disability in a secondary school teacher.



Ninety-eight undergraduate college students volunteered to participate in exchange for extra credit in psychology courses. Eighty-seven of these 98 students (mean age = 20.1 years; 35 males, 52 females) passed the manipulation check (described below) and were included in the study.


Four thirteen-minute videotapes were developed that depicted a high school history lecture. The teacher and students, who appeared in all four tapes, were paid confederates. A physical therapist familiar with the abilities of persons with paraplegia portrayed the teacher. The tapes varied as a function of whether (a) the teacher lectured from a wheelchair or stood next to an overhead projector and (b) the quality of the lecture was average or poor. The quality of a lecture was manipulated by altering the clarity of visual material (transparencies) and the teacher's interpersonal relations with the class, tone of voice, eye contact, and enthusiasm. Both average quality tapes were judged equivalent in content, both poor quality tapes were judged equivalent, and the differences between average and poor tapes were established in between-groups pretests.

Two written work samples, or lesson plans, were also developed; one was average in quality and the other was of poor quality. The average lesson plan was neatly formatted, presented sound objectives for the week's lectures, and clearly outlined each history lecture for the week. The poor lesson plan was typed carelessly, and presented weak objectives and garbled outlines for the week.

Independent Variables

The first independent variable was disability; participants viewed a videotaped teacher with an obvious physical disability, with a learning disability, or without a disability. The physical disability condition was created by the use of a wheelchair, the learning disability condition was manipulated by stating that the teacher had reported having a learning disability in college, and the no disability (control) condition consisted of the omission of that statement. Thus, the same tapes were used for the learning-and non-disabled conditions.

The second independent variable was performance quality; participants viewed either an average or a poor lecture, accompanied by a weekly lesson plan of similar quality.

Dependent Variables

The dependent measures were evaluations of the videotaped lecture and self-reported mood. The video measures consisted of ratings of 14 critical incidents related to teaching. Items assessed delivery of the lecture, rapport, lecture organization, lecture content, confidence, and global quality. Each item was rated on a seven-point scale with anchors ranging from (1) strongly disagree to (3) mildly disagree to (S) mildly agree to (7) strongly agree. Because of the high intercorrelations among the separate performance dimensions, the average of all 14 items was ultimately used as a composite such that the higher the score, the more favorable the evaluation.

Mood was measured with an adaptation of the Mood Adjective Check List (MACL; Nowlis, 1970). Fifteen adjectives comprising five factors were used from the original set of 49. Anxiety was assessed by the adjectives fearful, anxious, and nervous; aggression by angry, rebellious, and annoyed; concentration by intent, serious, and decisive; social by forgiving, kind, and warmhearted; and sadness was assessed by regretful, sad, and sorry. Participants indicated how they felt at that moment by circling a 0 if the word definitely did not describe them, 1 if they were unsure, 2 if the word moderately described them, and 3 if the word definitely described their feeling at that moment. Factor averages were then computed.

Design and Procedure

The design was a 2 X 3 between-subjects factorial in which Performance Quality (average or poor) and Disability (physical, LD, control) were crossed. The teacher and students were the same in all tapes, and performance quality was equivalent within the average and within the poor conditions.

One of four trained experimenters (2 males, 2 females) collected data individually from each participant. Each participant first heard a brief biography of the teacher in the video (into which the learning disability manipulation was inserted), viewed one of the videotapes of a high school history lecture, reviewed the corresponding lesson plan, and was then asked to evaluate the teacher on a range of performance dimensions. After evaluating the teacher, participants reported on their current mood state. Finally, a manipulation check ensured that subjects attended to the disability manipulations.


Manipulation check. Eleven of the 98 participants were unable to identify the disability status of the teacher or broadly identify the topic of the lecture on the video. The remaining 87 participants passed the manipulation check and provided complete data.

Video measures. Coefficient alpha for the 14 item video evaluation was .96. Along with the expected main effect of performance quality (F(1, 83) = 227.68, p [is less than] .001; [n.sup.2] = 73), a main effect of disability was obtained such that the teacher with the physical disability (M = 4.70, SD = 2.14, n = 28) was evaluated more favorably than the control (M = 4.29, SD = 2.14, n = 28) who, in turn, was evaluated more favorably than the teacher with the learning disability (M = 3.66, SD = 1.91, n = 33; E(2, 83) = 3.35, p [is less than] .04; n2 = .08). A priori comparisons indicated that the evaluation of the teacher with the LD was worse than that of the teacher with the physical disability (F(1, 59) = 4.14, p [is less than] .05), but not the control (F(1, 59) = 1.54, p [is greater than] .22). An interaction between disability and performance quality was not obtained (F(2, 83) = .52, p [is greater than] .60), suggesting that this bias generalized across both average and poor performances.

Mood measures. Coefficient alphas for the mood factors ranged from .34 to .66. No differences were observed for mood, perhaps due to the unreliability of the measurement. Nowlis (1970) has emphasized the difficulty of obtaining high reliability coefficients for transient mood measures.


We conclude that a teacher with a learning disability may elicit less favorable evaluations than one with a physical disability, perhaps because of both the relative salience and perceived legitimacy of the two disabilities under study. First, the finding that the teacher with the LD was rated more poorly is supported by schema theory. Jones and McGillis (1976) argued that the salience of a stigma, such as a disability, depends in part on the specific role or social category in which the stigma occurs. The role of "teacher" elicits a strong role schema, and behaviors or characteristics that are inconsistent with the role schema become particularly noticeable. People attend to information that is schema-inconsistent. Although teachers with physical disabilities are in themselves novel and, therefore, salient (Langer, Fiske, Taylor, & Chanowitz, 1976), we would argue that a physical disability is unrelated to the role of teacher. A teacher with any disability is still considered atypical, producing a salience effect, but the nature of a learning disability triggers an association that is relevant to the role. Perhaps unexpected but relevant schema-inconsistent characteristics elicit negative evaluations.

In addition, the majority of evidence supports a sympathy effect in the evaluation of a person with a physical disability. Notably, Stone and Sawatzki (1980) reported that a psychiatric disability appeared to decrease an interviewee's chance for selection while confinement to a wheelchair did not. Florian (1978) also found that physically impaired applicants were more likely to be employed than persons who are mentally ill, have epilepsy, or are blind. Florian offered the possible explanation that employers may perceive the behaviors of persons with these disabilities as less predictable, which may make employers less likely to hire them. Minskoff, Sautter, Hoffman, and Hawks (1987) extend employers' unwillingness to hire to an unwillingness to provide reasonable accommodations, specifically for employees with learning disabilities. Again, this may be due to employers' tendencies to view physical disabilities more positively or to their relative ignorance about employees with LDs. In the current study, an unspecified learning disability may have suggested that the teacher suffered from a suspicious social stigma; learning disabilities may not be considered an acceptable excuse for poor performance. Alternative explanations for stigma-based evaluations exist (e.g., Archer, 1985; Sussman, 1994) but are beyond the scope of the current investigation.

Bordieri and Drehmer (1986) also found that, regardless of the type of disability, subjects were more likely to recommend a job candidate whose disability was attributed to an external cause than a candidate whose disability could be attributed to an internal cause. Our teacher with the physical disability may be more readily perceived as not having been responsible for her disability while our teacher with the LD may be perceived as responsible for her performance. Bordieri and Drehmer (1987) further suggest that, across a host of disabilities, the degree to which the cause of an applicant's disability was internal or external was directly related to perceived acceptance of the applicant by coworkers. We submit that these same biases occur in a performance evaluation setting, and that a learning disability does not constitute a "legitimate" disability in the eyes of raters. It is important to note that neither disability group differed significantly from the non-disabled condition in the current investigation, although they differed from each other; thus, it is not established whether there is a positivity bias toward the physically-disabled target or a negativity bias against the learning-disabled target.

It is also not clear if we would have obtained an interaction between disability and performance quality if our levels of performance quality were more varied. The mean rating of the average conditions was quite high (M = 6.09) on the 7-point scale, suggesting that a ceiling effect may have occurred. With a greater range of response options, the observed bias may not have operated across all levels of performance as it did here.

Contrary to our expectations, no effects were observed for the mood measures. We included these in order to determine the affective state underlying any observed bias, such as whether sadness or guilt was associated with poor evaluations of someone with a disability. The mood factors, however, were unreliable, which may have obscured any relationship. We would encourage further attempts to determine the psychological state of the rater in studies of performance appraisal, particularly ones that include a stigmatized target.

We would also recommend investigations of successful accommodations for specific learning disabilities to improve employers' knowledge and acceptance of LDs. Field studies that track the efforts of secondary and post-secondary graduates with LDs to obtain and retain employment (e.g., Gajar, 1992) would be similarly helpful.

We are keenly aware that the artificiality of a laboratory investigation such as this may render our findings ungeneralizable to the workplace. The use of one physical disability and a nebulous learning disability additionally limits our conclusions. Nonetheless, the fact that a very subtle manipulation produced any effect at all should be of interest to practitioners in vocational rehabilitation.

Recommendations for Practice

Despite the fact that individuals with LDs can and do succeed in a broad spectrum of employment settings (e.g., Gerber, Ginsburg, & Reiff, 1992), and that reasonable accommodation is not a favor but is the law (Anderson et al., 1995), the current findings present a dilemma in terms of vocational counseling. Employers and coworkers clearly hold and often express unfavorable attitudes toward employees with LDs. When applying for a position, or even when casually conversing about one's background after hire, should a client reveal a learning disability? We would suggest revealing the disability if the LD would likely influence the current conduct of the essential functions of the job and a method of compensation for the disability (Meintz, 1993) were known to the client. Given that the current study suggests a bias based on the nature of a disability, we would recommend that the disability itself not be mentioned independent of a method of compensation. The compensatory mechanism must allow the essential functions of the job to be fulfilled in such a manner that would not cause undue hardship on the employer.

Bear in mind that there is a distinction between compensation and reasonable accommodation; the former refers to efforts exerted by the employee while the latter refers to efforts exerted by the employer. A common example of reasonable accommodation is an employer who shifts some non-essential functions of a job to another employee. A compensatory mechanism may involve a different approach to organizing, presenting, recording or retrieving information on the part of the employee; it describes alternative methods or processes that attain the same outcomes (Meintz, 1993). In practice, we may find that compensation may likely occur in conjunction with reasonable accommodation in that the ADA may require that employers re-create job descriptions that focus on performance outcomes instead of methods or processes.

Regardless, we recommend that clients must do their homework on current and alternative methods of job performance and should be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of the compensatory mechanism. Clients must be comfortable with and knowledgeable of their disability and its implications for a position; a confident job candidate or employee can instill confidence in others. Future research will have to determine if and how an explanation of some compensatory mechanism by a current or potential employee will benefit clients with LDs.

Author Notes

These data were presented at the 1994 meetings of the American Psychological Society. Kelli Godfrey is now with The Hay Group, Atlanta, GA.


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Nora P. Reilly, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Radford University, Radford, VA 24142.
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Author:Godfrey, Kelli J.
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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