October 29, 2021
Written by Merrit Stueven, MPP ’22
Edited by Anisha Asundi, WAPPP Research Fellow, and
Moira Notarstefano, WAPPP Communications Manager

Consequences for disabled people who confront patronizing help

In her talk for WAPPP’s Intersectional Approaches for Gender Equity seminar series, Dr. Katie Wang discussed the interpersonal consequences of ableism. Through four studies, Dr. Wang showcased the impact on disabled people when they confront patronizing help, including how individuals’ intersecting identities shape this impact. Dr. Wang began her discussion by underscoring the importance of intersectionality in this field, stating that existing research on disability treats people with disabilities as a homogenous group without acknowledging the impact of intersecting identities, especially when individuals hold multiple marginalized identities.

Dr. Wang defined ableism for her audience as stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination directed towards people with disabilities. While our society has become much more accessible since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, people with disabilities continue to face discrimination, including during job searches or in the form of missing infrastructure, such as wheelchair-accessible buildings. This is combined with a perception that disability is not common—while actually 25% of U.S. adults are affected by mental or physical disabilities.

Ableism manifests itself on the interpersonal level, including stereotypes that disabled people are ‘warm but incompetent’ as studied by Nario-Redmond in 2010 and are treated like children, according to a study by Liesener & Mills from 1999. In her paper, Dr. Wang explored this perception of working and independent disabled adults as being in need of help.

In the four studies, Dr. Wang set up scenarios for participants to read, which contained descriptions of an interaction between a disabled person and a pedestrian who encounter each other on a street corner. In each study, participants were asked to read the scenarios and evaluate their perceptions of the situation and the disabled person represented.

In the first study, two scenarios are presented: Mary, an adult blind woman who works full-time and travels independently using a white cane, asks the pedestrian for directions since construction is on her usual route. In the first scenario, representing patronizing help, the pedestrian grabbed Mary’s arm without consent and insisted on bringing her to her destination. In the second scenario, representing hostile treatment, the pedestrian told Mary to go home and insinuated it is unsafe for her to be walking around unassisted.

Dr. Wang found significant differences in the perceived appropriateness of these two scenarios between blind and sighted participants of the study. Sighted people see the patronizing scenario as relatively appropriate and the hostile scenario as highly inappropriate, while blind participants in the study viewed both scenarios as highly inappropriate. This difference in perceived appropriateness has significant downstream consequences on how blind people are perceived by the public when they respond to patronizing offers of help.

Dr. Wang added two different responses to the first study’s test of patronizing and hostile conditions to explore this dynamic further. Mary, the blind woman, could either passively acquiesce or assertively confront the pedestrian with a statement such as “I can handle myself just fine and was only trying to get some simple directions.” In addition to reporting how appropriate they perceived the pedestrian’s action to be, study participants also had to say how warm they perceived Mary to be as a person. Dr. Wang found that Mary was penalized much more—meaning she was rated as being less warm—when she confronted patronizing help than hostile behavior, likely because the sighted study participants viewed patronizing help as much more appropriate than hostile behavior, highlighting the risk of backlash against people with disabilities who confront patronizing help.

These initial studies raised questions for Dr. Wang on how gender would factor into the perceptions of people with disabilities who confront patronizing help. In a third study, she presented participants with a scenario in which a blind adult, now either Mary or Matt, asks for directions, is offered patronizing help, and responds assertively. The study focused only on assertive responses to patronizing help, having already dissected hostile behavior and non-confrontational responses in the previous study, to identify gender impacts. However, the study found no difference in the perceived warmth of the individuals in the scenario based on gender—a finding that supports the ‘primary stigmatized identity’ hypothesis, according to which one stigmatized identity becomes a person’s primary source of stigma.

In her last study, Dr. Wang explored if her previous findings, focused on blind people, can be generalized to people with other disabilities. In this study, all the scenarios presented to participants included a disabled individual waiting to cross a street confronted by a pedestrian offering patronizing help by grabbing the disabled person and trying to steer them across the street. The disabled person responds assertively, telling the pedestrian they do not need help. However, the scenarios varied by gender and disability type, representing the individual as either Mary or Matt and as either being blind or using a wheelchair. Dr. Wang found that study participants ranked blind people as significantly less warm across genders than wheelchair users who responded in the same way to patronizing help. The cause of this difference is unknown, but Dr. Wang hypothesized that this might be because blind people are perceived as more dependent and in need of help.

Through these four studies, Dr. Wang highlights the negative consequences that disabled people may face for confronting patronizing help, which they themselves find to be highly inappropriate. In addition, the findings uncover some key differences in treatment by disability type while finding that gender may not cause as significant of a difference in treatment. Dr. Wang is committed to continuing to broaden this intersectional literature on ableism and is especially interested in studying how Black and Latinx people with disabilities experience intertwining racism and ableism and exploring disability in the LGBTQ community.