Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology



First Advisor

Allan Berman


This study was designed to investigate the modification of attitudes of the non-disabled toward physically disabled individuals via systematic desensitization and information. Subjects for experimental and control groups were taken from a pool of 212 non-disabled college freshmen and sophomores enrolled in basic psychology courses at the University of Rhode Island. Seventy-four subjects participated in the study. Their selection was made on the basis of their having little or no previous contact with physically disabled persons, and ATDP scores falling below the 50th percentile of students pretested.

The study was conducted considering the following assumptions: (1) anxiety is aroused on the part of non-disabled in their interactions with the disabled and; (2) a relationship is established between anxiety and subsequent negative attitudes toward the disabled. Following this, three hypotheses were proposed: (1) systematic desensitization will reduce anxiety toward the physically disabled and thus, improve attitudes of non-disabled toward physically disabled individuals; (2) an increase in information about physical disabilities will allay anxiety in the non-disabled and therefore produce attitude change; (3) the combination of the two treatments will lead to the greatest significant positive change in attitudes of non-disabled toward the physically disabled.

Subjects were divided into four groups. One group received systematic desensitization over a period of four weeks (one session per week). This was conducted using a hierarchy of imagined, increasingly anxiety-provoking interactions with physically disabled persons. A second group received information about the physically disabled in four, 20 minute sessions over a similar four week period. The third group received both treatments. The control group received no treatment. A questionnaire consisting of three measures of attitudes toward the disabled and one measure of anxiety toward the disabled was administered pre and post treatment (approximately a seven week interval).

The statistical analysis of the data by analysis of covariance revealed the following main results:

  1. Systematic desensitization significantly lowered anxiety of the non-disabled toward the physically disabled, but did not significantly improve attitudes toward the physically disable.
  2. Information both significantly lowered anxiety and improved attitudes of non-disabled toward physically disabled individuals.
  3. The combination of the two treatments did not have a significant effect, over and above the effect of information alone, on attitudes toward the physically disabled.

The implication was that providing information, on a large scale basis, is an effective means of improving the general public's attitudes toward the physically disabled. Systematic desensitization, on the other hand, may only demonstrate its effectiveness with individuals that have actual, regular contact with those who are physically disabled.



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