The Contact Hypothesis

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on February 04, 2021 # Lifestyle

handicap spotThe New York Times opinion columnist, David Brooks, is someone who often drives my progressive friends batty, but as a reporter who follows, and often cites, current academic, social science research, he is an invaluable resource. His recent column on racial diversity training is a case in point. The column's general thesis is that these programs, though clearly well-intended, generally don't reduce discrimination. He cites a bevy of social science studies, published in "Scientific American" and elsewhere, to bolster his argument.

The article from "Scientific American" concludes: "But, to date, none of these interventions has been shown to result in permanent, long-termed reductions in implicit bias scores or, more importantly, sustained and meaningful changes in behavior."

I participated in an excellent implicit bias workshop last year via the Writers Guild of America and I found it pretty damn enlightening, especially with regards to the way that young Black children are unconsciously inculcated early in life with poor images of themselves, their looks, and their abilities. But I was the equivalent to preaching to the choir. I was more than predisposed to believe that White people like me harbored an implicit bias toward Black people. The training didn't change my attitude, only deepened it.

One mega-study that looked at 985 such sessions cited a number of reasons why short-term training doesn't change people. One, the workshops are too short – they don't change behavior in worker safety courses, either. Secondly, they can make people complacent, thinking the problem is solved and never looking inward at their own behavior. A third reason is that many White participants, denying they have any bias going in, "feel left out, angry, and resentful" being indoctrinated with such liberal claptrap.

What does this have to do with disability? Everything. An alternative school of thinking about eradicating racial bias also applies to prejudice about those with either physical or mental disabilities, the LGBTQ community, and even women in the workplace. It's called "the contact hypothesis," first articulated by psychologist Gordon Allport in a book called "The Nature of Prejudice." Allport argued that, under the proper circumstances, sustained interpersonal contact between diverse groups is the most effective way to reduce bias and for people to see each other as individuals, not simply members of a different or antagonistic tribe.

Think of a business situation where a White guy, a Black woman, and an Asian guy in a wheelchair are given an important and complex corporate problem to solve. Assuming they are of equal status, one of the conditions Allport says is essential, it doesn't take long until their focus on their common problem erases any perceived differences. If they arrive at the right solution, they all look good and they all make each other look good. In the process, they have discovered their common humanity – no more "us" vs. "them."

Of course, if the ensuing prejudice runs deep with any of the three participants above, you can see how this close contact would only exacerbate the bad feelings. This is part of the narrative in dozens of movies about Black and White characters – in Act One, they hate each other, and trade fightin’-words insults, but by Act Three, they are two people against the world, race be damned. Clearly, there can be many real-life stories that stop at Act One and never get to Act Three.

For people with disabilities, the contact hypothesis could prove to be a real boon. Much of the unconscious fear or wariness about the disabled is out of pure ignorance, not deep-seated hatred. You can have all kinds of stupid ideas about people with CP until you work alongside someone with CP. The same with Down syndrome, autism, and paralysis. Equal standing, a common goal demanding cooperation, and sustained interaction can never happen if disabled people are left on the sidelines. Widespread inclusion is mandatory. It should be the law – "permanent physical integration," to quote Brooks. Just open the damn door and let us in.

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.