Abstract

Juvenile justice employees' attitudes towards diverse impairments and their ideological and demographic predictors were examined. Supporting theories are that attitudes are comprised of ideological constructs and demographic variables and that there is a hierarchy of disability present in attitudes towards diverse disabilities. A cross-sectional design with quantitative measures was used. Results indicate that attitudes towards different types of disabilities vary considerably and are hierarchical in nature and that independent variables of demographics, social desirability in responding, and ideological constructs of social dominance orientation, normativism, and humanism have some effects on attitude outcomes, but not universally.

Little is known about the attitudes of juvenile justice staff towards people with disabilities. The term juvenile justice refers to the system that manages the progression of youthful offenders in the legal system post-arrest. This system encompasses a wide variety of environments: court intake, diversion, community-based programs, short-term detention, probation, long-term secure custody, residential treatment facilities, and aftercare/parole. In these settings, staff often interact with youth on a daily basis during adjudication that can last for days or years and can also serve as the youth's primary adult social universe in more restricted, secure treatment settings. Social rehabilitation efforts for youth in this system often succeed or fail as a result of the quality of the relationship and interactions between direct staff members and youth in their care (Roush, 1996). Although disability as an issue is gaining more attention by practitioners, administrators, and researchers because disproportionate numbers of youth with disabilities are presenting in this system of care, often juvenile justice agencies are not equipped to manage an effective response to disability-related needs of their population (National Council on Disability, 2003).

There is a great deal of variance in reported estimates of youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice population. Researchers have reported that prevalence rates range between 9% to 78% (Bullock & Macarthur, 1994; Gemignani, 1992; Leone, Rutherford, & Nelson, 1991; Moran, 1991; Quinn, Rutherford, Leone, Osher, & Poirier, 2005; Rider-Hankins, 1992). Quinn et al. explored disability types among youth receiving special education in the juvenile justice system and found that disabilities included emotional (48%), learning (39%), intellectual (10%), or other (3%) disabilities. Reasons for the wide disparity in prevalence rates may be due to the debates surrounding the fluid conceptualization of disabilities as either deviations of constitution, personality, or socialization; and estimates also vary upon the methods of research and populations sampled (Ashford, Sales, & Reid, 2000; Fujiura, 2001). These percentages may still understate the prevalence of disabilities among incarcerated youth. Many more youth in the juvenile justice system may have disabilities but are not identified because many institutions do not have effective reporting procedures in place for identifying youth with disabilities or have a generalized understanding of definitions of disabilities (Ashford et al., 2000; Quinn, et al., 2005; Warboys, Burrell, Peters, & Ramiu, 1996). Yet, despite the high estimated presence of youth with disabilities in juvenile justice systems, the National Council on Disabilities (2003) stated that the American juvenile justice system is ill-equipped to respond to the issues and needs of youth with disabilities in their care because of a lack of awareness, lack of resources, and lack of training on disability-related issues.

Studies show that much of the general population holds negative attitudes towards individuals with disabilities, considered by many to be a fundamental source of oppression for these citizens in our society (Charlton, 2001; Finkelstein, 1980; Oliver, 1990; Union of the Physically Impaired, 1976). Negative attitudes affect quality of life and opportunities for individuals with disabilities through a variety of channels (Gething, 1992; Livhen, 1982; Popovich, Scherbaum, Scherbaum, & Polinko, 2003). These include a lack of influence on public policy decisions and funding priorities; denial of goods and services; removal from public life by architectural, legal, economic, social, and institutional barriers; incarceration; and elimination as a consequence of eugenic politics (Albrecht, Walker, & Levy, 1982; Braddock, 2001; Henry, Keys, Jopp, & Balcazar, 1996). Those with negative attitudes towards disability who interact with people who have disabilities, including family, medical and rehabilitation personnel, teachers, coworkers, and employers, can have a limiting effect on the person's occupational and social success (Holmes & Karst, 1990). In short, negative attitudes towards disabilities can affect virtually every social environment that an individual with a disability encounters. Studies also indicate that there may be differences in attitudes towards different types of disabilities, called a “hierarchy of disability,” that can exist when people hold differing degrees of attitudes towards diverse and highly specific disability groups (Harasymiw & Horne, 1976).

Many interrelated factors seem to determine an individual's attitude toward individuals with disabilities (Thomas, 2001), including stigma (Goffman, 1963), cause or “fault” of the disability (Bordieri & Drehmer, 1986), and demographic factors such as age, gender, level of education, and contact/ context of experiences with people with disabilities. Research results also widely support the theoretical premise that attitudes are made up of ideological constructs (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswick, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950; Kraus, 1995; Saucier, 2000). Ideologies are considered to be clusters of attitudes and beliefs that are interdependent in the sense that they are organized around a dominant societal theme (Eagly & Chaiken, 1998).

Despite an extensive base of scholarly research concerning attitude development and composition, much of the attitude research in the disability arena is conducted without a theoretical foundation (Altman, 1981; Donaldson, 1980; Ryan, 1981; Soder, 1990). Many studies have been based on a simplified conception of attitudes and an accompanying simplistic methodological approach (Soder, 1990), and researchers have concentrated on measuring the individual's responses without investigating the wider social and temporal context within which the responses and underlying attitudes were developed. These studies support the need to incorporate ideologies when exploring disability attitudes in research.

Understanding staff attitudes towards disabilities is important for the following reasons. Despite the large numbers of youth with disabilities in juvenile justice systems, and despite the evidence of negative attitudes in the public towards people with disabilities and their oppressive effects, few, if any, researchers have explored the attitudes of juvenile justice staff towards individuals with disabilities. Because research has shown that attitudes influence the quality of interactions between people with and without disabilities, and because the quality of interactions between juvenile justice staff and youth in their care is critical to the youth's success during and after adjudication, research is needed to determine whether negative attitudinal patterns exist. The juvenile justice system is in need of meaningful information that can improve responses to youth with disabilities. Therefore, research is needed to explore attitudes towards disabilities of staff working in juvenile justice settings in order to determine system response to youth with disabilities.

In this cross-sectional study, we explored attitudes of juvenile justice staff towards intellectual, psychiatric, and physical disabilities; we also investigated whether ideological and demographic variables predicted these attitudes. Our study is grounded in an adaptation of Leonard and Crawford's (1989) two-level theory of attitudes in that personal experience with disabilities and ideological orientation influence attitudes towards disabilities; demographic variables and disability referents were added to the model for this study. We hypothesized that (a) Attitude scores for different domains of disabilities will not be equal; (b) Independent variables of age, education, staff type, and personal experience with individual(s) with disabilities and ideological constructs of social dominance orientation, normativism, and humanism will predict attitudes towards disabilities in all three disability domains, after controlling for social desirability.

Method

Participants

Participants were individual employees that worked in a nonprofit juvenile justice organization in an eastern state. The agency operated six residential juvenile justice programs for the state, served approximately 600 male and female adjudicated youth (under the age of 21) each year, and employed 140 staff members at the time the study was conducted. Surveys were distributed to all staff members; those who wished to participate voluntarily completed the survey and returned it to the principal investigator. Their mean age was 39 years (SD = 11.29, range = 22 to 70). All aspects of this research project were approved by a university internal review board, and research protocols were conducted accordingly. An evaluation of the agency's juvenile justice population (n = 555) the year the study was conducted indicated that approximately 65% of youth served in the juvenile justice programs had disabilities; with categorization of psychological disability (24.3%), psychiatric disorder (61.6%), intellectual disability (11.9%), and physical disability (1.3%).

Measures

A demographic information questionnaire was used to collect information that included the following variables: age, education (high school, Associate's, Bachelors, Master's degree or higher), position (administrative/management, clinician, direct care, support staff, teacher), length of employment in the field, gender (male, female), ethnicity (African American, Caucasian, Latino, Native American, Other), personal experience with disability (yes, no), type of disabilities encountered (intellectual, psychiatric, physical, other), and frequency of contact with individuals who have disabilities (none, daily, weekly, once per month, once every 3 months, less than every 3 months). Respondents were asked to check the most appropriate response on their knowledge of disability in the population of their programs. Response choices were: “There aren't any youth with disabilities at the facility where I work”; “I can guess how many youth have disabilities at the facility where I work”; “I know exactly how many youth with disabilities are at the facility where I work”; and “I don't know how many youth have disabilities are at the facility where I work.”

We used five quantitative measures: two for measuring disability attitudes towards three disability domains (intellectual, psychiatric, and physical), one to measure social desirability in responding, and two for measuring three ideological domains. Descriptions of each measure and reported psychometric properties are presented below.

The Interaction With Disabled Persons Scale (Gething & Wheeler, 1992) was devised to tap dimensions underlying nonaccepting or negative attitudes towards people with disabilities in terms of levels of discomfort in social interaction as a central factor underlying negative attitudes. Recently, researchers have suggested that this scale measures the fear of having a disability (Thomas, Palmer, Coker-Juneau, & Williams, 2003). This measure consists of 20 items relating to reactions when meeting someone with a disability. A 6-point Likert scale is used, with lower scores indicating more favorable attitudes. We assessed reported test–retest reliability by using Antonak and Livneh's (1988) method, which resulted in scores between .51 and .82. Internal validity was assessed on several occasions, with results ranging between .74 and .86.

The Community Living Attitudes Scale (Henry et al., 1996) was developed to measure attitudes towards individuals with intellectual disabilities. It is a 40-item measure consisting of four subscales that tap attitudes about people with intellectual disabilities in areas of Empowerment (13 items), Exclusion (8 items), Similarity (12 items), and Sheltering (7 items); a 6-point Likert scale is used. Measure was modified to refer to specific disability types of psychiatric and physical disability. Higher scores reflect more positive attitudes towards people with disabilities. This scale has demonstrated acceptable internal consistency, retest reliability, and construct validity. Reported test–retest reliability ranged from .70 to .75 for each subscale (Henry et al., 1996).

Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding (Paulhus, 1994), also called the Paulhus Deception Scale, measures an individual's tendency to provide socially desirable responses on a self-report instrument (Paulhus, 1994). The inventory contains 40 items accompanied by a 7-point Likert scale. This measure has fair to good internal reliability, with Cronbach's alphas ranging from .83 to .86. Internal validity shows values ranging from .75 to .86 (Mellor, Conroy, & Masteller, 1986; Paulhus, 1994; Quinn et al., 2005).Test–retest reliability of .65 was reported by Paulhus (1994).

The Social Dominance Orientation Scale (Pratto, Sindanius, Stallworth, & Malle, 1994) is a 16-item, unidimensional instrument used to measure the belief that some people are inherently superior or inferior to others and approval of unequal group relationships. Higher scores indicate stronger social dominance tendencies. Extensive psychometric work has shown this scale to be highly reliable and valid (Pratto et al., 1994).

The Polarity Scale PS43 (Tomkins, 1965, adapted by W. Stone & Schaffner, 1997) is the 43-item (pair) version (PS43) originated from item analyses of the original 59-item Polarity Scale. The Polarity Scale contrasts normative and humanistic views through successive pairs of statements that range across all domains of human experience. Humanism and normativism engage a person's world views, beliefs about human nature, and personal values. Humanism is the source of all meaning and values and is a positive idealization of human experience. Normativism involves a negative but equally idealized image of human experience as valueless and meaningless in and of itself. Higher scores indicate stronger tendencies of agreeing with ideological statements. Reported reliabilities of the scale are good, with domains of Humanism at .82 and Normativism at .78; internal validity of both domains has an alpha of .84.

Analysis

The dependent variables in this study were attitudes towards disabilities in the three different domains of intellectual, psychiatric, and physical disabilities. Independent variables were demographics, personal experience with disabilities, social dominance orientation, humanism, normativism, and social desirability in responding. First, in order to compare differences between attitudes toward intellectual, psychiatric, and physical disabilities, we carried out two separate ANOVAs. The first was conducted with the Interaction With Disabled Persons Scale attitude scores and the second, with the Community Living Attitudes Scale attitude scores. Third, in order to control for social desirability and predict the contribution of highly correlated demographic and ideological variables to attitude scores, we implemented a series of hierarchical multiple regressions. The following variables were entered into the model in three blocks based on theory: (a) social desirability in responding, (b) demographic variables, and (c) ideological variables (Social Dominance Orientation Scale, Normativism, and Humanism).

Results

Out of 140 surveys distributed, 65 were returned, a response rate of 46.4%. See Table 1 for a description of the demographic characteristics of the sample. In other questions on the survey, respondents were asked to self-report basic details on previous experiences with people who had disabilities. Almost 91% of the sample reported that they had previous experience with someone with a disability. Of these, 86.4% said that they had previous experience with someone with a psychiatric disability; 78%, people with intellectual disabilities; and 73%, people with physical disabilities. Eighty-six percent had experiences with individuals who had more than one type of disability. Most respondents (70.3%) reported that they had previous contact with 4 or more individuals with disabilities. Participants were asked to report on their level of perception of clients with disabilities that were within their client population. Twenty-nine percent (n = 19) did not know how many youth in their program had disabilities; 24.6% (n = 16) could guess how many youth had disabilities; 23.1% (n = 15) said there were no youth; and 21.4% (n = 14) knew exactly how many youth had disabilities in their program. These results are an interesting contrast with the agency's report that shows 65% of their juvenile justice population had disabilities during the same year this study was conducted.

Table 1

Descriptive Statistics

Descriptive Statistics
Descriptive Statistics

Attitude Scores

First, we conducted two separate ANOVAs to test differences in attitudes toward intellectual, psychiatric, and physical disabilities. There were significant differences between attitudes towards disability types for both the Interaction With Disabled Persons Scale, F(2, 64) = 3.37, p < .05, and Community Living Attitudes Scale, F(2, 128) = 22.97, p < .001. Next, tests of simple effects (independent t tests with a Bonferroni adjustment) were conducted on scores of attitudes for the three disability types in Interaction With Disabled Persons Scale and Community Living Attitudes Scale scales to explain these differences. For the Interaction With Disabled Persons Scale, attitudes towards physical disabilities were significantly more negative than were attitudes towards intellectual and psychiatric disabilities, t(64) = −2.87, p < .05. For the Community Living Attitudes Scale scores, however, attitudes toward physical disabilities were significantly more positive than attitudes toward intellectual disabilities t(64) = −4.92, p < .001, and attitudes towards psychiatric disabilities, t(64) = −7.00, p < .001. There were no significant differences between attitudes towards intellectual and psychiatric disabilities in scores of both scales (see Table 2).

Table 2

Attitudes Towards Disabilities by Measure and Disability Type

Attitudes Towards Disabilities by Measure and Disability Type
Attitudes Towards Disabilities by Measure and Disability Type

Ideological and Demographic Predictors of Attitudes Towards Disabilities

We computed regression analysis that used significantly correlated variables (see Tables 3 and 4). After controlling for desirability in responding, we found that personal experience with disabilities predicted community inclusion scores for people with intellectual disabilities. Social dominance orientation predicted community inclusion scores for people with psychiatric disabilities as well as social discomfort scores for people with physical disabilities. Social desirability in responding predicted social discomfort scores for people with intellectual and psychiatric disabilities.

Table 3

Correlations Between Variables, Ideological Constructs, and Attitude Scales

Correlations Between Variables, Ideological Constructs, and Attitude Scales
Correlations Between Variables, Ideological Constructs, and Attitude Scales
Table 4

Multiple Regression of Demographic and Social Dominance Orientation Constructs on Attitudes Towards Individuals by Disability

Multiple Regression of Demographic and Social Dominance Orientation Constructs on Attitudes Towards Individuals by Disability
Multiple Regression of Demographic and Social Dominance Orientation Constructs on Attitudes Towards Individuals by Disability

Discussion

This research is an important contribution to the literature by being among the first in which attitudes towards disabilities have been explored in the juvenile justice setting and ideological frameworks have provided a wider social and temporal context. Findings did not suggest that any one variable or ideological construct is correlated to attitudes towards disability across all disability domains, indicating that disability may not be perceived as a unidimensional state by those in this sample. This data indicate that respondents assigned different values to different types of disabilities and, therefore, had varying attitudes towards intellectual, psychiatric, and physical disabilities. Results suggest that the type of disability referred to triggers different attitudinal responses; therefore, certain variables become more or less influential in relating or predicting attitudes depending upon the referent given. This supports the premise that a complex hierarchy of disability exists. The reasons for these differences in attitudes cannot be fully explained by demographics or the selected ideological constructs alone, indicating that there is something else at play in determining attitudes towards disabilities.

The first hypothesis, that attitude scores for different categories of disabilities would not be equal, was proved true because analysis of the survey data showed that attitudes towards people with physical disabilities were significantly more positive than attitudes towards those individuals with psychiatric or intellectual disabilities when measured in terms of endorsing inclusion in community life (Community Living Attitudes Scale). Staff were significantly more uncomfortable with individuals who had physical disabilities compared to those with intellectual and psychiatric disabilities (Interaction With Disabled Persons Scale).

These findings from the current study both align and disagree with earlier researchers who have explored attitudes towards disabilities. Results of the current study are consistent with reports that employers found employees with physical disabilities more desirable (Jones, Gallagher, Kelley, & Massari, 1991), that physical disabilities were viewed more positively (Hutchins, 1990), and that those with visible disabilities are more positively rated than those with hidden disabilities (Bordieri & Drehmer, 1986). However, our findings contradict Scheid's (1990) finding that individuals with physical disabilities were viewed as the most comfortable to be around by workers without disabilities compared to those with intellectual and/or psychiatric disabilities.

When considering the meaning of these results, I reasoned that higher levels of discomfort may be explained by the theory of fear of aging and fear of dependence. S. Stone (2003) argued that a fear of aging may be more precisely recognized as a fear of disability and that fear of disability can be centrally understood as a fear of dependence. This premise is further supported by the suggestion that the Interaction With Disabled Persons Scale measures fear of acquiring a disability (Thomas et al., 2003). Another factor along these lines that was not considered in this study but that may contribute to attitudes towards disability is the perceived level of disability-related community supports, services, and economic support that exist for this population. If respondents feel as though few services and supports are available to them should they acquire a disability, and if this situation is perceived to be a threat to their quality of life, it is possible that fear of acquiring a disability may be heightened, resulting in more negative attitudes towards disabilities.

Another aspect that seems to support this theory is that respondents reported feeling most similar to people with physical disabilities, despite reported levels of higher social discomfort. Why would this apparent conflict exist? Because many physical disabilities are acquired due to effects of trauma, age, or illness, and do not necessarily occur at birth or develop before the age of 21 as many intellectual and psychiatric disabilities do, perhaps there is a link between the participants' fear of the possibility of acquiring a physical disability over the course of their lifetime, of being dependent on others for care, and having greater levels of discomfort with physical disabilities. The dependency aspect may also tie into and conflict with social values on the importance of one's capacity to participate actively in the economic market and be economically self-sustaining. This raises the question, Does one's value of the ability to be economically self-sustaining influence his or her attitudes towards people with disabilities? Taking this idea one step further, I wondered whether there may be an assumption that society views people with physical disabilities as more able and more likely to contribute positively to the economy of the country compared to people with intellectual and psychiatric disabilities and, therefore, may explain the stronger levels of endorsing community inclusion for those with physical disabilities?

Another question raised from the data is whether attitudes towards community inclusion are influenced by a belief that society is capable of meeting disability-related needs in the community. It is one thing to agree with the statement, “Yes, people with disabilities should live in the community” at face value; however, if respondents layer this statement with their perceptions about the level of community-based supports for people with disability-related needs, and if their perceptions are that society is ill-equipped to handle these needs, then their endorsement for unsupported community living may be diminished. This, then, would not necessarily be a negative attitude toward people with disabilities but, instead, a negative attitude towards societal response to their needs, which is an important distinction. Testing the relation between social discomfort and sheltering may provide further insight into this phenomenon. I performed a secondary analysis of the data on the Sheltering subscale of the Community Living Attitudes Scale, which taps the extent to which respondents believe that people with disabilities need to have daily supervision or need protection from the dangers of community life (Henry et al., 1996) to determine whether the data might support this premise. I found that all three disability types were not related to overall social discomfort totals. Without a relation to personal discomfort present, there is room to theorize whether endorsement of community living may also be influenced by the belief that society has or does not have the capacity to successfully include and respond to people with disabilities and is, therefore, not only about the right for them to live in the community. There may be other unidentified factors that contribute to the model, which calls for further researchers to investigate.

Results suggest that respondents were more likely to give what they thought were the socially correct or acceptable responses when it came to answering questions about the importance of fitting into a social norm. In theorizing about possible explanations for these findings, perhaps the situational aspect of a secure treatment juvenile justice facility in which everyone—staff included—are required to adhere to a strict mandate of procedures and protocols in virtually every aspect of the daily routine contributed to filtered responses. Respondents were also more likely to give what they thought was the “right” answer about their attitudes towards levels of social discomfort when interacting with people with intellectual and psychiatric disabilities. The fact that respondents were more truthful regarding their level of discomfort with people who have physical disabilities is an interesting finding. Further exploration of the differences in levels of social desirability in responding is needed to add clarity to this aspect of attitudes towards diverse disabilities.

The second hypothesis was that independent variables of age, education, staff type, and personal experience with individual(s) who have disabilities and ideological constructs of social dominance orientation, normativism, and humanism would predict attitudes towards disabilities in all three disability domains. This hypothesis was also found to be partially true. Results indicate that attitudes towards people with intellectual disabilities in the community inclusion scale are moderately predicted by personal experience with disabilities. Most of the sample reported having multiple, prior experiences with people who had diverse disabilities. It could be that respondents, through a prior experience with a person who has an intellectual disability, transfers the knowledge of that experience to a generally more positive and replicable attitudinal positioning. This phenomenon, however, does not happen with other disability types referred to in this sample, even though reported levels of experience with different types of disability were fairly similar. Secondary analysis of the data showed that there were no significant differences of attitude scores for those individuals who reported having prior experiences with someone with an intellectual disability compared to those who did not. Therefore, the question of why homogeneous assumptions or conclusions seem to be made for people with intellectual disabilities after “experiencing” interactions with someone with a disability is an interesting one. Is the nature of intellectual disability perceived to be more predictable among this sample and, therefore, considered more homogeneous than other types of disabilities? It also leads to the possibility that psychiatric and physical disabilities may not be considered as predictable in comparison with intellectual disabilities, and, therefore, conclusions drawn from previous interactional experiences are not transferred to generalized attitudes towards these disability types.

In terms of the influence that selected ideologies had on attitudes, there were also unexpected results. Social dominance orientation theory states that societies minimize group conflict by creating consensus on ideologies that promote the superiority of one group over others (Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, & Malle, 1994). It would seem that in an environment that operates on controlled social systems, where staff are in full control of schedules, procedures, behavioral expectations, and movement of its population, that social dominance orientation would play an important role in attitudinal positioning; however, this was generally not found to be the case. Social dominance orientation only moderately predicted community inclusion scores for attitudes towards those with psychiatric disabilities as well as social discomfort scores for those with physical disabilities.

Humanism scores moderately predicted social discomfort scores towards those with physical disabilities and, surprisingly, were not found to be related to endorsement of community inclusion for any disability types. Because humanism involves the source of all meaning and values a positive idealization of human experience (Timkins, 1996), this was a surprising finding because this ideology was thought to have a much more significant influence on attitudes towards disability. However, why should this be? Perhaps humanism levels are unusually influenced for this sample of juvenile justice staff due to the nature of juvenile justice settings in terms of the often stressful crime-oriented issues that accompany daily operations. Another possibility is that perhaps endorsing community inclusion for people with disabilities has less to do with humanistic values and more to do with a belief of civil rights and individual freedoms; therefore, it does not invoke the same set of responses that are captured on the humanism scale. However, these are only ideas and untested theories that need thorough investigation to determine whether they hold any merit.

There are several interesting issues that this preliminary research has raised. The attitudes themselves seem to confirm the premise that there is a hierarchy of disability present. Given the different variables, disability attitude measures, ideologies, and disability domains, this sample seemed to shift their most positive ranking of disability types and did not show a clear hierarchical pattern overall. The movement and fluidity in attitudinal positioning towards people with disabilities is a fascinating phenomenon. Findings suggest that there may be other factors that influence attitudes towards disabilities, such as economic self-sufficiency as part of fear of dependency and acquiring a disability. Levels and types of experiences with people who have disabilities seem to be an important determinant in attitudes towards disabilities, but to what extent still remains to be discovered. There is also the supposition that perhaps attitudes towards disabilities may be influenced by the perception of disability-related supports, services, and barriers that are in the community. Because it goes far beyond the scope of this study, these premises need further theoretical development and research exploration.

It was also interesting to note that almost a quarter of the respondents reported that there were no youth with disabilities in their programs, and almost a third indicated that they did not know how many youth in the program had disabilities. Teachers, clinicians, support staff, administrators, and direct care staff answered in the categories of I can guess, I know exactly, or I don't know how many youth have disabilities, which indicates that there is no one position type that holds this knowledge in this sample. Yet the agency's own internal assessment indicated that 65% of youth in their care the year the study was conducted had a definitive disability. The “invisibility” of disability in the population of care for this sample raises concerns. This suggests that each day a significant percentage of juvenile justice staff members may be providing care for youth, some of whom have disabilities, but are unprepared to acknowledge and address disability-related needs. The National Council on Disabilities (2003) noted that this situation is systemwide and supports the need for heightened awareness of disability-related issues and appropriate responses by system administrators, including disability-awareness training.

Limitations of Study

Threats to validity are sampling and instrumentation. Participants in the present study may be different from the overall population of juvenile justice staff. There was a relatively low number of minorities participating in the study, which may have limited representation of cultural or ethnically based perspectives. In addition, the combination of disability attitudinal scales with ideological scales may not render conclusive correlative evidence between them. In this research I only explored attitudes towards disability, not how attitudes affect behavior or what the outcomes for youth with disabilities are, both within the juvenile justice environment and postdischarge. The sample size was small, and staff from this agency may not be representative of others in the field. Because respondents were recruited from a self-selecting sample that responded to a recruitment effort by completing and sending in the survey, respondents may have heightened interest in the topic of disability and, therefore, may be more interested, more knowledgeable, and more involved in this topic than is typical of their professional community and/ or peers. The pen-and-paper survey instrument used may not have captured the data needed to better understand attitudes towards disabilities. In observing attitudes toward disability in one moment in time, I did not look at how attitudes naturally evolve if specific interventions (such as a disability awareness training program) change attitudes and, if so, in what ways; how attitudes of employees in juvenile justice organizations towards disability compare to those in other human service areas; or how they compare to attitudes held by the general public. Also, the population of juvenile offenders with disabilities is not included as part of exploring their perceptions of how attitudes towards disability affects them within the juvenile justice environment. These factors may limit the generalizability of the findings.

Recommendations

Results of this modest study, despite its many limitations, lead to several recommendations. Because significant differences were found between attitudes towards community inclusion for individuals with different types of disabilities, there is a need to provide more training to staff on disability-related issues, including disability perspectives, social/interactional needs and practices, discussions of environmental barriers, and information on community-based resources. Involving people with disabilities, especially those with intellectual and psychiatric disabilities as consultant trainers, will provide a valuable perspective to staff members about the effects of service delivery. This kind of training may have a direct consequence on operations. For example, training may affect how instructions are given to youth with disabilities, how timeframes of expected response to instructions or task assignments are determined, and how behaviors are interpreted and responded to by staff. Stephen Rosenbaum, Chief of Special Litigation of the Civil Rights Division within the U.S. Department of Justice, wrote about this last point in terms of the implications of employees' interactions with juvenile offenders with psychiatric disability:

Not every mental illness is immediately identifiable by correctional employees in a juvenile facility. It is important for mental health needs to be systematically evaluated by qualified professionals. This must happen not only to facilitate appropriate professional treatment, but also to ensure that line employees become aware of the special needs of individual juveniles and learn appropriate responses to those needs. Far too often, we find that predictable behavior relating to mental illness is interpreted by inadequately trained employees as disobedience, defiance, or even threats. Employees respond with anger, discipline, or even force—even though other interventions could have diffused the situation.

The second recommendation is that juvenile justice organizations consider assessing how services, procedures, and interactions may negatively affect youth with disabilities. One model that the system can look to can be found in the school of social enquiry known as therapeutic jurisprudence. Bruce Winick and David Wexler co-founded this concept, which is defined as the study of law's healing potential, which seeks to assess the therapeutic and countertherapeutic consequences of law and how it is applied and to effect legal change designed to increase the former and diminish the latter (Winick, 2006). It is a mental health approach to law that uses the tools of the behavioral sciences to assess law's therapeutic impact and, when consistent with other important legal values, to reshape law and legal processes in ways that can improve the psychological functioning and emotional well-being of those affected (Winick, 2006). Williams (2004) provided further information on how this approach could be used in other systems of care, including juvenile justice, human services, and corporate organizations.

Third, disability awareness initiatives, disability-related supports, and appropriate services and programs for youth with disabilities should be an integral and funded part of daily operations in juvenile justice agencies. This includes organizational support, such as establishing clear programmatic expectations, disability awareness training, and providing up-to-date disability resources for staff to be well-informed about the disability-related needs of their client population. Funding sources such as state juvenile justice departments and federal entities need to include mandates for disability-related programming in their contract requirements and supply adequate monetary resources to support such programs.

Finally, recommendations for further research are as follows. Studies are needed to determine whether attitudes about community inclusion for people with disabilities are influenced by the belief that society has the capacity to successfully include and respond to people with disabilities. More research is needed to determine whether and how economic self-sufficiency may be a factor in determining attitudes towards those with disabilities. The relation between attitudes towards disabilities, quality of interactions among staff and youth with disabilities, and their outcomes on these youth both while they are within the system and after adjudication has not been addressed in the literature and needs further investigation. More research should be conducted to explore the perspectives of youth with disabilities and their families about the effects of being in a juvenile justice facility, and how delivered services meet their disability-related needs. Last, but not least, there is a need to study the process of self-assessment and change of juvenile justice organizations in terms of response to youth with disabilities.

This small study presents a unique profile of additions to the literature regarding attitudes towards disabilities and their ideological contexts. However, one result is clear: The broader issue of how our society perceives disability, the variability of attitudes towards different types of disabilities, and how these are influenced by our histories and ideological values remains a largely unexplained yet fascinating phenomena in attitudinal research.

Table 3

Extended

Extended
Extended

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This research was part of the requirements for the PhD and was submitted to the Department of Disability and Human Development, University of Illinois at Chicago. The author thanks her advisor, Tamar Heller, and committee members Gary Albrecht, Glenn Fujiura, Fabricio Balcazar, and Ruth Luckasson for their wisdom, time, and insights.

Author notes

Author:

Ann Cameron Caldwell, PhD (anncameron.ac@gmail.com), 407 Etowah Ave., Prospect Heights, IL 60070