Most people support policies that favour disabled people, but some conceal negative attitudes

Some people withdraw their support for disability policies when assured of their anonymity, an experimental survey by the ESRI reveals. Anonymity made the largest difference on policies designed to help disabled people meet the extra cost of living associated with having a disability.  

In the study, which was funded by the National Disability Authority, a nationally representative sample of 2,000 adults were asked about their opinion of a range of different disability policies. In the first experiment, one group was asked directly about their support for policies while another group could express their opinion more anonymously.

  • The study revealed that support for increased social welfare payments for disabled people was lower (66%) when respondents had more anonymity than when they were asked directly for their support (77%).
  • Anonymity made a bigger difference to people with higher levels of educational attainment: 76% supported increased social welfare payments when asked directly, compared to just 59% when given more anonymity. This finding suggests that respondents who are better educated may be more likely to respond to standard surveys in ways that they view are socially desirable.
  • When assured of their anonymity, 1 in 20 drivers admitted to parking in an accessible parking spot without a permit.
  • Conversely, more anonymity sometimes led to greater support for disability policy. The study revealed that more people supported prioritising disabled people for social housing when they were given greater anonymity (71% vs. 61%), perhaps reflecting a preference for people with disabilities compared to others who might compete for limited social housing stock.

A second experiment showed that support for disability policies is much lower when questions specify how policies will be funded or potential trade-offs.

  • There was almost universal support (98%) for children with disabilities to get the support they need using a standard survey question, but this dropped to 85% when the question specified the policy would be funded through budget reallocation. Support dropped further, to 64%, when the policy was to be funded through a tax increase.
  • 84% of people said that they supported a proposal to build more wheelchair accessible infrastructure on a standard survey question. However, when trade-offs were made explicit, such as reducing parking infrastructure or cycling infrastructure, support was lower, at 77% for parking and just 67% for cycling.

Despite differences in support depending on how questions were posed, a highlight from the study is that the majority of people supported most policies that aim to enable disabled people to participate fully in society, even with full anonymity. Support was stronger among respondents most familiar with disability issues, such as those with lived experience of disability or whose partner or child has a disability.

“The results show that while public support for disability is high, standard surveys may overstate it” said Dr Shane Timmons, lead author of the report. “The link between being close to someone with a disability and support for policy suggests that increasing the inclusion of disabled people in communities and workplaces and informing the public about the challenges of having a disability may improve attitudes to disabled people and supportive policies.”

Director of the NDA, Dr Aideen Hartney, welcomed the research saying: “This is a genuinely ground-breaking study which is the first of its kind to be focussed on attitudes to disability. The findings make it clear that there is more work to be done to address negative attitudes towards disability so as to achieve equal rights and opportunities for persons with disabilities in Ireland.”