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The Disability Paradox

By underestimating our resilience, we enable ableism.

Key points

  • Nondisabled people assume disabled people have a low quality of life, which contradicts what people with disabilities experience.
  • Affective forecasting errors are common; people regularly overestimate how intensely happy or sad events will make them feel.
  • Learning from people with disabilities about adaptation can reduce ableism and remind us of our resilience.
Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Co-authored with John Knowlton

Roughly 26 percent of American adults have a disability, making people with disabilities the largest minority group in the country. Although disability is a common experience that will affect you or your loved ones at some point, inaccurate assumptions abound.

People fear becoming disabled and pity those who do. Nondisabled people assume that people with disabilities have a worse quality of life, but this idea contradicts what many people with disabilities actually think.

When asked to rate disabled people’s quality of life, nondisabled people assume it is low—lower in fact than people with the disability in question rate their own quality of life. This gap between what nondisabled people believe and what people with disabilities actually experience is known as the disability paradox.

This paradox results from numerous misconceptions about disability that are rarely challenged and humans’ poor ability to predict how they would feel in hypothetical situations.

Indeed, research finds that even 82 percent of doctors believe that people with significant disabilities have a lower quality of life, which could have profound implications on their medical decision-making. For example, when resources are in short supply, like in a pandemic, doctors make decisions about who gets ventilators, vaccines, etc., based on the likelihood of a good quality of life outcome. This means that doctors may pass over certain people with disabilities because of assumptions about whose lives are worth living.

Poor Affective Forecasting

Affective forecasting is when people try to predict how they will feel in the future. People are generally bad at this, which means they are also bad at predicting how other people will feel. People overestimate how happy a positive, or how sad a negative event, will make them feel and how long it will make them feel that way.

Affective forecasting is a major reason why able-bodied individuals often assume that people with disabilities are miserable. One reason for affective forecasting errors is focalism, which is the tendency to focus on only one aspect of an experience while disregarding the full picture. This could explain why many people fixate on the symptoms of a disability rather than how people may adapt.

Disability Simulations

Efforts have been made to help able-bodied people better understand what it is like to live with a disability. Disability simulations attempt to teach people about disability by having them do tasks while temporarily simulating a disability using a blindfold to impede vision or earplugs to block sound. Unfortunately, research shows that these well-meaning activities can backfire.

In two experiments, nondisabled participants engaged in a blindness simulation. They wore blindfolds and completed tasks like navigating a room and sorting coins. Compared to people in a control group, participants who did the blindness simulation rated blind people as less capable and predicted that if they went blind, they would be less capable and adapt more slowly.

Disability simulations cause participants to fixate on the initial period where they first acquire a disability and don’t convey the many adaptations disabled people develop over time. Because people struggle to accomplish tasks in disability simulations, these simulations lead people to believe that disabled people are less competent and to fear acquiring a disability because it would make them less competent.

The Psychological Immune System

Disability simulations highlight the tendency to overlook humanity’s ability to bounce back from adversity. We neglect to consider the power of our psychological immune systems, coping strategies, and resilience. Immune neglect is a major reason we make affective forecasting errors and is especially relevant to those who acquire disabilities later in life. The initial acquisition of a disability can be very difficult due to sudden changes in a person’s life. These individuals tend to fixate on the things they have lost and the things they are no longer able to do, but this usually changes over time.

As time passes, and if they have access to social support and resources, these individuals will develop adaptations that allow them to do things they previously thought they could never do again. Some adaptations involve lifestyle changes, while others involve knowing which resources to reach out to. For instance, Jeff is a 47-year-old community corrections officer who eventually learned where he could get proper accommodations. Jeff uses a wheelchair and struggled with activities of daily living until he got in touch with a disability information and assistance specialist. The specialist helped him find helpful organizations and install new equipment in his home that made it so Jeff could live independently. Jeff is one example of people with disabilities adapting to situations that many able-bodied individuals might assume impossible to overcome.

Many people fail to recognize their psychological immune systems and the power of the right resources, which causes them to make incorrect judgments about people with disabilities and their capacity for adaptation. Instead of disability simulations, a more effective way to reduce ableism would be to learn from people with disabilities about the ingenuity and creativity they developed over time. Only then will able-bodied individuals better understand this common human experience and realize that adaptations and accommodations can allow people with disabilities to live happy lives. The disability paradox is an important reminder of our ability to bounce back over time.

John Knowlton is an undergraduate student at Oregon State University and an alum of Dr. Bogart’s Psychology of Disability class.