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Tilting at Windmills: Changing Attitudes Toward People with Disabilities

Negative attitudes toward employees with disabilities can result in discrimination (Scope, 2003, Shapiro, 1994). Companies, agencies, and organizations are composed of individuals with their own attitudes and beliefs about people with disabilities. Co-workers will draw conclusions regarding the people with whom they work. Supervisors and management staff will make decisions that affect employees. The individual choices that people make regarding the hiring of people with disabilities can be guided by their attitudes (Hernandez, Keys & Balcazar, 2000). The 1999 President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities pointed out that, regarding employment, “often, the most difficult barriers to overcome are attitudes other people carry regarding people with disabilities” (p. 2).

These attitudes could generate from ignorance, misunderstanding, stereotyping, backlash and fear (Peck & Kirkbride; 2001, Smart, 2001). Ultimately, they will restrict a person with a disability from equal access in the US society. Kennedy and Olney (2001) found that discrimination in the world of work, despite the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), is still a serious problem for people with disabilities. They suggest that, although the ADA was designed to promote economic independence of individuals with disabilities, the legal protections must be augmented by changing employer attitudes that foster job discrimination. Social discrimination is considered to be one of the most significant problems for people with disabilities (Antonak & Livneh, 2000; Lebed, 1985). Often, the individual with a disability is seen as “owning” the problem rather than having limitations caused by environmental restrictions such as discrimination (Kaplan, 2000). Smart (2001) discusses societal practices toward people with dis abilities that stem from prejudicial sources such as charity, preferential treatment, and financial compensation; “Stereotypes of any kind lead to behaviors and actions that limit and reduce the opportunities of people in that category” (p. 185). Pertaining to employment, discriminatory stereotyping is a pervasive negative attitude that focuses on a person’s disability rather than on a person’s ability (Department of Labor [DOL], 2003a).

The Department of Labor (DOL) discusses a need for a concerted effort to dispel the attitudinal barriers that prevent full integration of people with disabilities in the world of work (2003c). The attitudes of employers can affect the employment outcomes for people with disabilities (Kennedy & Olney, 2001). Many disability advocates believe negative social attitudes have led to the unemployment and underemployment of people with disabilities in the United States. This attitudinal discrimination can exist in many different areas of life and is particularly noticeable in the vocational setting.


Attitudes are “a combination of beliefs and feelings that predispose a person to behave a certain way” (Noe, 2002, p. 108). Chubon (1992) believes that attitudes and behavior are linked and that attitude motivates behavior. He sees attitudes as comprising three elements: cognition, affect, and behavior-responses. Noe suggests that attitudes are made up of cognitive, affective, and internal components (2002). In developing their instrument to measure attitudes of employers, Clark and Crewe (2000) evaluated the link between attitude and behavior. They suggested that attitudes are learned. In their study, they defined attitude as the cognitive, perceptual, and affective influences that affect the direction of favorability and behavior (toward people with disabilities). Schmelkin (1988) also believes behavior is influenced by attitude, suggesting, “such things as attitudes, behaviors, expectations, interactions, treatment, and attributions that are made” with regard to people with disabilities will be affected by the stereotypes that are held by individuals (p. 127). The way people think about disability can affect the way they act toward people with disabilities. Negative social attitudes lead to situations that develop, reinforce, and solidify socio-environmental barriers to mainstream activities such as work, for people with disabilities (Clark & Crewe, 2000). McFarlin, Song and Sonntag (1991) surveyed Fortune 500 personnel executives and found negative attitudes toward the hiring of people with disabilities. These negative attitudes can be based on myths (Unger, 2002), misperceptions (Smart, 2001), stereotypes (Blanck, 1996), and fear (Diksa & Rogers, 1996, Peck & Kirkbride, 2001). These emotional responses can foster discrimination in the workplace and can contribute to unemployment and poor working conditions.

Reducing Unemployment

People with disabilities, arguably a minority population in the United States (Rubin & Roessler, 2001; Shapiro, 1994), should be provided the same opportunities as the majority to participate fully in society and in the world of work. Most theories of justice support some attempt to maximize the economic productivity of people who are able to work but have a disability (Beauchamp & Childress, 2001). The employment rate for people with disabilities should not be substantially lower than that of the general public if there is truly equal access and opportunity. The ADA requires that organizations with fifteen or more employees give qualified people with disabilities equal opportunity in the workplace (DOJ, 2002). Despite this legislation designed to combat the unemployment rate, in the 1990s, the employment rate of men and women with disabilities drastically declined compared to that of women and men without disabilities (Burkhauser, Houtenville & Wittenburg, 2003). Perhaps attitudes in the workplace are contributing to this discrepancy and changing these attitudes will decrease discrimination (DOL, 2003a), thereby increasing the employment rate of people with disabilities.

Employer attitudes keep a large pool of potential workers (with disabilities) out of the workforce (Feldman, Gordon, White & Weber, 1988). Many people with disabilities are ready, willing, and able to work, (Kennedy & Olney, 2001) and they are the largest source of unutilized talent in our labor force (Green & Brooke, 2001). Van Lieshout (2001) discusses the Business Leadership Network, which is an employer led coalition with networks throughout the country promoting employment of people with disabilities, as a “talented, motivated source of untapped labor” (p. 77). Hiring people with disabilities will increase the availability of potential workers (Younes, 2001). This labor pool is a good source for business growth, and employer attitudes may be limiting its potential (Graffam, Smith, Shinkfield & Polzin, 2002).

Many suggestions have been made for improving the business world’s hiring practices in regard to disability issues, such as developing a regular recruiting process that draws from the community of disability; building long-term relationships with organizations in the community that are committed to the employment of people with disabilities; making upper-level policy changes regarding diversity; obtaining commitment from senior managers to the employment diversification program; continuously teaching and reinforcing information about disabilities with all employees; and maintaining a diverse, forward-thinking work environment (Younes, 2001). By having people with disabilities regularly in the work setting, diversity is increased and more creative solutions can be found. Both private and public sector employers felt that “visible top management commitment” was an effective strategy for reducing employment barriers to qualified workers (both with and without disabilities) (DOL, 2003b). Levy, Jessop, Rimmerman, and Levy (1991) found that, of corporations with hiring policies regarding people with disabilities, sixty-four percent had hired at least one individual with a disability. On the other hand, only forty percent of companies without hiring policies had done so. A policy of non-discrimination and inclusion can help employees and management develop positive attitudes toward people with disabilities. Many employers do not understand disability in general or the medical and psychosocial aspects of particular disabilities. The DOL advocates education of employers regarding the provisions of Title I and the benefits of hiring qualified individuals–particularly those individuals with disabilities (2003b). Education can provide employers with information regarding policy implementation, the ADA and the manageable costs of most modifications. Disability awareness/sensitivity training can confront employer concerns and dissipate unreasonable fears.

Training and Education

Training can also address myths regarding people with disabilities. Some employers may believe
that people with disabilities are somehow different from other employees. Makas (1988) thought
that strain occurring during interactions between people with and without disabilities came from
misunderstandings of expectations, rather than from negative intentions. If individuals with these misunderstandings could be educated, perhaps the strain would dissipate. Bordieri, Drehmer, and
Taylor (1997) found that individuals with physical disabilities receive more favorable evaluations in
the application process from potential employers than do individuals with cognitive or emotional
disabilities. This could be due to misperceptions regarding the aspects of a particular type of disability. Education may remediate these gaps in knowledge.

There are number of different ways to sensitize people to disability issues. Active learning, where
participants are involved in the process, can address many of the issues surrounding disability.
Simulated disability experiences and exposure to and interaction with people with disabilities are
active and experiential in nature. Education is also a way to teach people and provide current
information regarding disability. In the employment setting, classroom instruction is a common
technique utilized to educate. Younes (2001) feels that intensive training regarding recruiting
people with disabilities for employment should be part of any management program. She suggests
that this type of training should include group activities and role-playing to allow managers to
investigate their own prejudices and how those fears and misperceptions may influence their
decisions. Attitudinal training could address interviewing to help managers feel good about their
skills in dealing with people with disabilities. Younes (2001) feels that managers can return to their
teams and workgroups and create an inclusive and welcoming environment for people with disabilities following sensitivity training. Her reviews of large employer practices support the aspect of awareness/sensitivity training that will improve managers’ supervision abilities. This active experiential learning can improve working conditions for the entire workforce.

“Experiential learning occurs when a person engages in some activity, critically reflects on that activity, abstracts some useful insight from the analysis, and puts the result to work through a change in behavior” (Pfeiffer & Jones, 1980, p. 4). Pfeiffer and Jones describe the five stages of the experiential learning cycle as including; experiencing, sharing, processing, generalizing, and applying. The experiential learning model was first presented in 1938 and has been expanded upon since that time (Harrelson & Leaver-Dunn, 2002). Being actively engaged in learning, applying content, and synthesizing new knowledge allows students to retain the knowledge and put it into practice in the future (Reese, 2002). Langer and Chanowitz (1988) discuss studies (their own and others) that evaluated perceptions of and behavior toward people with disabilities based on “mindfulness”. They purport that the more mindful people are of what causes their attitudes and behaviors, the less likely people are to categorize people and disregard their unique characteristics. The Tilting at Windmills curriculum creates an experience related to disability, has participants share their thoughts about it, process new information and increase mindfulness, generalize to the vocational environment, and apply resulting changes in attitude and knowledge to the work setting.

Tilting at Windmills

Tilting at Windmills is an employer-focused training program created to address attitudes and misconceptions regarding people with disabilities. The curriculum was developed to raise awareness of limitations imposed on people with disabilities due to lack of knowledge and tolerance of myths. In developing their Windmills training curriculum in 1980, the Friends of the California Governor’s Committee for the Employment of People With Disabilities, Inc. (CGCEPD), described the affective components of their program. These rehabilitation professionals felt sensitivity training should include interactive exercises designed to encourage each person’s active participation.

Training should expose stereotypes and challenge attitudes in a non-threatening, inclusive manner. After completion, participants should have been educated on the general provisions of the ADA and their responsibilities in the work setting; such training can correct misinformation and misperceptions. Attitudes are addressed and participants can see disability issues in a “new light” (CGCEPD, 1993). This is a workshop designed to increase awareness of the role that attitudes play in the employment of persons with disabilities. It consists of modular exercises which can be arranged for one to eight hour training sessions.

Windmills is based on the concept that attitudes about persons with disabilities are instrumental in forming behaviors toward individuals with disabilities. If supervisors change the attitudes they have about persons with disabilities, they will be more open to changing their behavior. This will promote the employment of persons with disabilities. Through participatory exercises, participants are able to identify emotions, stereotypes and attitudinal barriers that may cause them to be less effective managers when dealing with persons with disabilities. Through group discussion, the participants will reach an understanding of those attitudes and learn methods and techniques that will assist them in becoming more effective managers. (p. 7) The Windmills curriculum also describes the trainers’ characteristics and techniques and clearly follows the experiential learning cycle. There is a six page “Leaders Guide” to ensure consistent application of technique.

The Tilting at Windmills curriculum contains eleven modules. Depending on the length of training, one to eleven modules may be implemented in a day. Each module consists of exercises relevant to the every day world of work as well as information regarding legal requirements and accommodation. The Windmills training program provides the following “module summaries”:

Module 1, Empathy–Establishes group and individual identity. Provides opportunity for participants to better understand their own feelings and the feeling an employee with a disability may experience in a first-encounter situation.

Module 2, The Story–A warm-up exercise that allows participants to share personal experiences they have with disabilities or persons who have disabilities.

Module 3, The Calendar Game–Shows the intensity of competition among people and manifests the dynamics of group interaction. Illustrates how a disabled employee can be excluded from contributing to a company.

Module 4, Rumor Game–Shows that rumors can be frequent fixtures in the workplace. Shows how and why rumors quickly become distorted as they spread and how they can have a negative impact on the job environment for a person with the disability.

Module 5, Profile–Points out how employers have a tendency to predetermine where the person with the disability can work. This may be attributed to an employer’s lack of experience or limited exposure to the wide range of disability. Job matches on a case-by-case basis are explored.

Module 6, Interview–Demonstrates the critical importance of asking questions in the interview to resolve concerns about hiring. Participants receive helpful hints on what to say and how to say it.

Module 7, Pick a Disability–Allows individual fears and stereotypes about disabilities to surface. Such attitudes that are based on experience (or lack of experience) of the disability affect a person’s willingness to hire a disabled individual. It brings out participants’ fears about disability and demonstrates how easily emotional reactions to disabilities can be transferred.

Module 8, Ask It Basket–Provides a safe environment for participants to ask questions about disabilities by giving them the opportunity to question anonymously. Embarrassment is avoided, and the answers come from the group.

Module 9, Encounter–Includes discussion with a panel of individuals with disabilities in a noncompetitive, relaxed and information-sharing atmosphere.

Module 10, Whose Fault–Demonstrates how prejudices cause people to personally limit the employment of persons with disabilities because of their limited exposure to the variety of

Module 11, Reasonable Accommodation–Looks at potential needs of workers with disabilities and possible solutions. Includes a review of the enclosed ADA questions/answer sheet on the more frequently asked questions about ADA requirements. (CGCEPD, 1993, Modules)

Since its creation in 1982 and its revision in 1993 to reflect changes in legislation and the Americans with Disabilities Act, Windmills has been widely used in almost every state in the United States. In many areas, the Employment Development Department and Department of Rehabilitation field staff provide shorter versions of the curriculum as an employer outreach and placement tool. In 2000, 136 training kits were disseminated in the United States. The Department of Labor, Department of Agriculture, Navy, Marine Corps, CIA, NASA, and other agencies in the federal government use Windmills as part of ongoing training. The French and Japanese governments have requested permission to translate the curriculum to provide awareness training in their countries. Over the years, consultants have provided trainings to corporations such as IBM, General Electric, Bank of America, TRW, Xerox, Chevron, Rockwell International, Hughes Aircraft, Wells Fargo Bank, Lockheed, IT&T, and McDonald’s (CGCEPD, 1993). Many state rehabilitation agencies, such as those in Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Alaska, and California, have staff who provide this training free of charge, whereas other consultants may coordinate and lead the training for profit.

Unfortunately, no empirical studies have been published on the efficacy of the Windmills curriculum. There is no data available to support nor to disprove the effectiveness of this popular curriculum on attitude change. Many facilitators ask participants to complete evaluations at the end of training. For example, in Ohio, Department of Rehabilitation staff has trainees rate the experience on a one to ten scale through questions such as, “Did you find the program beneficial? Did the program reach its goal of increasing your awareness to people with disabilities? Will you be able to use this knowledge on your job? Would you recommend this training to other companies?” From a sample of the more than fifty trainings provided to employers in Ohio in 2003, the mean rating was above 9.0 (Sykes, 2004). Verbatim comments included: Very eye opening and it shows that companies can and will hire disabled persons; Great training–good for company our size; Awareness is the key! This was a very useful session. I learned a lot; Great information–very helpful in my job and interviewing process! Need more of this type of training available to everyone; Worthwhile training to increase awareness by supervisors and for all employees in an organization; This training opened my eyes to many stereotypes that are projected and learned; All of our managers need to go through this training. It was great! Very informative training which we need more of; Excellent presentation and materials; The training opens your eyes and gives you a whole new perspective on employing/working with people with disabilities. (Sykes, 2004) Trainers and participants generally endorse the Windmills curriculum. Feedback from trainings is usually positive and most supervisors recognize the benefits of improving attitudes in the workplace.

Future Research

This short, inexpensive training program designed to improve attitudes toward people with disabilities should be formally evaluated. Though there is anecdotal evidence of its success (participants are verbally enthusiastic following training, evaluations of the training are overwhelmingly positive, and companies report satisfaction with education), no scientific assessments of the training can be found in the literature. An attitude survey, such as the Attitudes toward Disabled Persons Scale (ATDP), originally designed by Yuker, Block, and Campbell in 1960, the Scale to determine Attitudes toward Disabled Persons (SADP), designed by Antonak and Livneh in 1982, the 1989 New Scale from Speakman in Zimbabwe, or the Interaction with Disabled Persons Scale (IDP) from Australia, created by Gething and Wheeler in 1992, could be administered as a pre-and post-test to determine if participant attitudes improved significantly following Windmills training. Most people express satisfaction with the training itself as well as the benefits to employees with and without disabilities. Most state/federal vocational rehabilitation programs conduct employer outreach to facilitate employment of clients with disabilities. This outreach could include a Windmills training to educate and increase awareness. Not only might supervisors and managers be sensitized to disability issues, they would learn where to find qualified employees ready to go to work. If employer attitudes toward employees with disabilities can be improved, longterm change may be facilitated.

Changing employer attitudes may be the first step in reducing discrimination and improving the employment rate of people with disabilities (McCarthy, 1988; Smart, 2001). If an initial study of the curriculum finds that Windmills positively impacts attitudes, future research could attempt to determine if this attitude change results in increased hiring of people with disabilities. Those with hiring responsibility could be queried about the number of people with disabilities hired prior to training and follow-up data could be gathered at a later date. Experiential training programs could be compared with other methods of education for an effect on attitude change. Further research could also address and attempt to demonstrate a direct connection between improved attitudes and improved working conditions for people with disabilities. For example, does an increase in positive attitude lead to an increase in hiring of people with disabilities? The Tilting at Windmills curriculum is popular within the public rehabilitation agencies, but empirical testing of the curriculum would be beneficial to professionals, employers and ultimately, to the clients.

Written by, H. L. Brostrand, PhD, CRC published in the 2006 Journal of Rehabilitation.


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H.L. Brostrand MA, CRC, LCPC, SIUC Rehabilitation Institute Mailcode 4609, Carbondale, IL 62901. COPYRIGHT 2006 National Rehabilitation Association
COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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