Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2006, Volume 26, No. 3
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies

"One lady was so busy staring at me she walked into a wall":
Interability Relations from the Perspective of Women with Disabilities

Joan M. Ostrove[1]
Department of Psychology
Macalester College
1600 Grand Avenue
St Paul, MN 55105 USA
651-696-6464 (phone); 651-696-6348 (fax)
Email: ostrove@macalester.edu

Danette Crawford
Macalester College


Psychology research and intervention in intergroup relations has been largely influenced by Allport's (1954) contact theory. Intergroup attitudes in the domain of disability have also been well established. These research areas, however, tend not to take into account the perspective or experiences of target group members. The current research attempts to take such an insider's perspective (Oyserman & Swim, 2001). This study presents data from in-depth interviews with 19 women with disabilities who were asked to describe the qualities of negative and positive interactions and relationships with non-disabled people. The women reported being treated with condescension and pity in their general interactions with non-disabled people. While many of the interviewees had difficulty thinking of specific positive interactions with non-disabled people in their day-to-day lives, they could easily enumerate the qualities of such interactions: eye contact was made and maintained, tone of voice was not condescending, non-disabled people were respectful and knowledgeable.

Keywords: Disability Studies, Women with Disabilities, Stigma, Intergroup relations

Understanding and reducing intergroup prejudice and discrimination has been a primary focus of social psychology since the middle of the 20th century. Much of the contemporary psychological research on reducing racism and other kinds of discrimination has its roots in Allport's (1954) contact theory, which posited four primary conditions to facilitate positive intergroup interaction (for reviews of research see, e.g., Jones, 1997; Oskamp, 2000; Pettigrew, 1998). The four conditions are: contact that confers equal status upon members, cooperation in the task involved, institutional support, and perceived similarity between participants. Despite its considerable influence, Allport's contact theory has significant limitations for both understanding and promoting positive intergroup relations. For example, Devine and Vasquez (1998) note that his conditions "are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in most real-world settings" (p. 243). Hewstone and Brown's (1986) reminder that the broader social context must always be accounted for when studying intergroup relations emphasizes the difficulty of achieving Allport's conditions in societies that are characterized by pervasive and systemic discrimination (e.g., racism).

Recently, scholars in the areas of critical white studies and men's studies (e.g., Delgado & Stefancic, 1997) have enumerated and explored the meanings of anti-racist and anti-sexist identities, thus expanding our notions of and strategies for imagining not only the conditions but also the processes by which members of dominant groups may work to change their prejudiced stances toward particular target groups. Dovidio, Gaertner, and Kawakami (2003) enumerate the processes (e.g., behavioral, cognitive and affective factors; functional relations; etc.) through which intergroup contact seems to reduce prejudice. Specifically, cooperative contact may engender greater acceptance on the part of dominant group members, reduce their anxiety, increase their empathy, and alter their previously-biased cognitive representations of target group members.

In addition to the limitations of contact theory noted above, research on intergroup relations has focused almost exclusively on dominant outgroup members' attitudes or behaviors toward members of minority groups (Oyserman & Swim, 2001). Oyserman and Swim (2001) noted that "focus on the outgroups' views has meant that important insiders' perspectives on what constitutes prejudice and insiders' contributions to interactions go unrecorded" (p. 2). The current study begins to address possibilities for understanding intergroup relations in the area of disability by asking people with disabilities themselves to describe the nature of their positive and negative intergroup interactions.

The domain of disability is a particularly interesting and important arena in which to study intergroup relations and alliances because of the persistent and pervasive nature of the segregation of people with disabilities in the United States. This segregation has been both physical and psychological. Physically, many people with disabilities have been systematically isolated from the rest of society (see, e.g., Davis, 1997; Shapiro, 1994). Historically, the rate of institutionalization of people with many different kinds of disabilities has been extremely high (Biklen, 1988; Braddock & Parish, 2001). Psychologically, segregation is enforced by the "there but for the grace of God go I" quality of the reaction of many non-disabled people to the presence of people with visible disabilities: disabled people[2] are, in many situations, unwitting catalysts in forcing non-disabled people to examine their own vulnerability, fragility, and mortality (see, e.g., Davis, 2002; Wendell, 1996). Such structural and social barriers systematically confine people with disabilities to the places or to the information that are accessible to them (Kaye & Longmore, 1997).We live in a segregated society with respect to disability that both results from and perpetuates cultural stereotypes of disability, and also influences interpersonal relationships. As Sprague and Hayes (2000) noted, "the ways our community and society are organized shape and constrain the kinds of interpersonal relationships we can form and sustain" (p. 686; see also Crawford & Ostrove, 2003, for a discussion of the ways in which stereotypes influence interpersonal relations in the domain of disability).

Disability also provides an important context for the study of intergroup relations because when attention has been paid to contact between disabled and non-disabled people, it has often been focused on "treatment" and/or caretaking. As Charlton (1998), writing about the disability rights movement, pointed out, "the needs of people with disabilities and the potential for meeting these needs are everywhere conditioned by a dependency born of powerlessness, poverty, degradation, and institutionalization" (p. 3). The legacy of this lack of control provided the impetus for the title of Charlton's (1998) book, Nothing About Us Without Us, and for the disability rights movement more generally. It also motivates the emphasis on mutually empowering relationships in Sprague and Hayes' (2000) analysis of talk about disability. This legacy also provides a difficult, but important, challenge to establishing effective intergroup relations in the area of disability, as people with disabilities are often acutely wary of the motivations of non-disabled people.

Finally, unlike status transitions in the domains of race and gender, for example, virtually everyone easily has the chance (and if they live long enough the likelihood) of becoming disabled. As Davis (2002) put it, the "category of disability is permeable" (p. 36). Garland-Thomson (2002) emphasized that disability "reveals the essential dynamism of identity" (p. 20). It is therefore ironic, if understandable for the reasons referred to above, that so many non-disabled people have so little experience interacting with disabled people and that the issue of disability is virtually absent from the academy and from the broader contemporary discourse about multiculturalism (Davis, 2002).

Despite these barriers (and at the same time because of them), relationships between disabled and non-disabled people have been widely studied from the perspective of prejudice reduction (e.g., Maras & Brown, 1996; Slininger, Sherrill, & Jankowski, 2000) and attitudes of non-disabled people toward people with disabilities (e.g., Esses & Beaufoy, 1994; Soder, 1990). In general, studies find that non-disabled people view people with disabilities as less capable and less intelligent than non-disabled people (Olkin, 1999), and as childlike and dependent (Shapiro, 1994). Olkin (1999) summarized studies of how non-disabled people feel when interacting with disabled people whom they do not know. She concluded that non-disabled people tend to experience some combination of admiration, pity, embarrassment, anger at being inconvenienced, and resentment at what they take as the special privileges of the disabled (see also Cahill & Eggleston, 1994). Behavioral studies of "interability communication" find that these interactions are characterized by shorter length and premature termination, increased physical distance, less eye contact (but more staring if the person with a disability is unaware that she or he is being watched), less smiling, and greater galvanic skin response arousal (summarized in Fox & Giles, 1996; see also Emry & Wiseman, 1987). Gaertner and Dovidio's (2000) work on contemporary racism may be instructive here. They suggested that emotions, rather than attitudes per se, are critical to understanding the form that racism takes most commonly in the U.S. now, what they call aversive racism. Aversive racism is characteristic of White people in the U.S. who have egalitarian values but nevertheless have negative feelings toward Black people. As Gaertner and Dovidio (2000) said, "The negative affect that aversive racists have for blacks is not hostility or hate, instead, this negativity involves discomfort, uneasiness, disgust, and sometimes fear" (p. 290).

Much of the work referred to above in the domain of disability and in work on intergroup relations more generally focuses on the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of the non-target (or dominant) group (e.g., non-disabled people, white people, Protestants). Despite recent efforts to illuminate the nature of discrimination and stigma from the insider's perspective (c.f., Oyserman & Swim, 2001), very little scholarship asks members of the targeted groups themselves to describe the qualities of dominant group members (see Cahill & Eggleston, 1994; Fox, 1994, cited in Fox & Giles, 1996; Makas, 1988, for exceptions in the area of disability; see Mellor, 2003, for an exception in the area of race; see also Tropp, 2003, for a general discussion and research with experimentally created and ethnicity-based groups). Fox (1994, cited in Fox & Giles, 1996) interviewed people with disabilities and found that their interactions with non-disabled people were characterized by patronizing talk that she classified into three categories: 1) baby talk (e.g., "Poor little dear" spoken in a condescending tone); 2) depersonalizing language (e.g., "It's nice that you people get out of the house"); 3) third-party talk (e.g., asking the non-disabled partner of a disabled man, "Does he take cream in his coffee?" p. 267). Cahill and Eggleston's (1994) work emphasized that their informants, all of whom used wheelchairs, not only experienced the kind of treatment described by Fox on a regular basis, but also felt themselves virtually solely responsible for managing the emotional and interpersonal dynamics in their interactions with non-disabled people (see also Garland-Thomson, 1997).

Makas (1988) studied attitudes toward people with disabilities by employing an interesting methodological paradigm. Makas used the attitude scores of both people with disabilities themselves, as well as non-disabled people who were nominated by the people with disabilities as having non-prejudiced attitudes, as baselines for positive attitudes. She then assessed the attitudes of non-disabled students in an introductory psychology participant pool. She found that there were domains in which the non-disabled students, in a condition in which they were explicitly asked to have positive attitudes, had (from the perspective of people with disabilities) more negative attitudes toward disabled people than when they were answering honestly. In addition, their attitudes in both conditions tended to be more negative than those of the other two groups, which did not differ significantly from one another. Specifically, when non-disabled students were trying to have positive attitudes, their responses reflected a desire to "be nice, helpful, and ultimately place the disabled person in a needy situation" (p. 58). From the perspective of people with disabilities, positive attitudes would mean either "dispensing with the special category of disability in the first place" or adopting an attitude focused on defending disabled people's civil and social rights (p. 58). Makas' work thus elegantly highlighted the ways in which disabled people and non-disabled people differ in their representations of positive attitudes, especially in the areas of "special treatment" and "the inspirational disabled person," and may therefore misinterpret each other's interaction and communication efforts (see also Emry & Wiseman, 1987).

Even less scholarship focuses on the qualities of dominant group members who have non-prejudiced attitudes and/or behaviors (Makas, 1988, is an exception). There has been a recent call in disability studies to examine the "defining features of genuine allies to the disability community" (Gill, 2001, p. 369). Gill (2001) defines allies as non-disabled people who "seem devoid of disability prejudice but who know and despise it when they see it," and who "make the effort to learn who their disabled associates are in their full glory and their full ordinariness;" in short, allies are "the ones who 'get it'" (p. 368).

The current study

The current study seeks to provide one strategy for beginning to understand the defining features of allies to people with disabilities: asking women with disabilities to describe effective relationships with non-disabled people. This is only a partial step toward addressing Gill's important question but is one that may illuminate some important aspects of effective intergroup contact from a perspective that has been neglected in the literature to date. What is the nature of disabled women's relationships with non-disabled friends and allies? What characterizes an effective interaction? What do women with disabilities want in their relationships with non-disabled people?

This kind of research endeavor, in which we are asking members of a historically discriminated-against group questions about a domain that has received very little systematic attention to date, is perhaps best undertaken with qualitative methods. As Marecek, Fine, and Kidder (1997) noted, qualitative methods are useful under these circumstances because "instead of specifying at the outset the variables whose main effects and interactions will be tracked, qualitative workers begin with a period of exploration and immersion" (p. 633). More recently, Mellor (2003) used qualitative methods to understand the experience of racism from the perspective of those who are targeted by it. He emphasized that the ways in which "individuals experience racism and how they respond to those experiences ... are not well-suited to quantification" (p. 475). This claim holds true in the domain of disability as well, as our focus here is on the intergroup experiences (often characterized by prejudice and discrimination) of people with disabilities.

The current study is based on in-depth interviews with 19 women with a variety of disabilities that significantly affect their activities of daily living who were asked to describe their interactions with non-disabled people and to define the characteristics of allies. Disabilities that are readily apparent upon interaction were chosen in order to explore the impact of disability on intergroup contact. Jones (1997) discusses the ways that visible markers of difference transform an interaction that should be interpersonal into an intergroup encounter. Similarly, in their critique and extension of Allport's contact theory into a more comprehensive theory of intergroup contact, Hewstone and Brown (1986) highlighted the critical distinction between interpersonal behavior and intergroup behavior, in which the latter highlights the importance of social identity and category membership. What characterizes interactions in which group membership is salient are "relations of status, power, material interdependence and so on" (p. 15). They suggest that studies of intergroup behavior "must formulate independent variables concerning people's social relations as group members, and not as individual persons" (p. 15). It is these concerns related to intergroup interactions that motivated us not only to interview women with visible disabilities, but also to focus our analysis primarily on disability status as a critical social identity, rather than on other individual difference variables such as age of onset of disability, exact type of disability, participant age, etc. These variables may ultimately be very important to a more nuanced analysis of intergroup relations and alliance building, but were beyond the scope of our current exploration of the interability experiences of women with disabilities.



Nineteen adult women with physical and/or sensory disabilities participated in an interview for a study on the intimate and interpersonal relationships of women with disabilities (see Crawford & Ostrove, 2003, for a description of the primary study for which these interviews were conducted). Eighteen participants were Caucasian and identified as European-American or did not state an ethnic identity. One individual identified as Laotian. Eighteen participants were heterosexual and one identified as a lesbian. Participants had a variety of disabilities, including multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries, and polio; two were blind and one was deaf[3]. Eight of the participants were disabled since birth; five acquired a disability during early childhood (between the ages of 2 and 6); five became disabled as adults. The participants demonstrated wide-ranging diversity in terms of their class backgrounds, which ranged from upper middle class to impoverished. Thirteen of the women were living below the poverty line at the time of the interview. Ten of the women were currently in relationships with partners. All but two had had an intimate relationship at some time in their adult lives. Their median age was 47 (range = 21 to 69).


Flyers and newsletter bulletins were distributed to more than 50 disability-related organizations across the state of Minnesota, with a particular focus on the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. Additionally, participants were recruited via a research subject e-mail list compiled by the State of Iowa, Department of Education, Special Education Parent Consultant. A third source of contacts was provided by a web site focused on independent living.


Individual, semi-structured open-ended interviews were conducted by the second author, who identified as severely disabled. She found that having a disability, even one that was sometimes quite different from that of the person she was interviewing, provided an important and effective basis for quick rapport building and for quickly engaging the trust of her interviewees. Such insider status is not without its limitations, however, as the insider may operate with particular assumptions of similarity that are not actually present (see Pitman, 2002, for a discussion).

Five interviews were conducted in person, and 14 were carried out over the telephone (the interviewer "came out" as having a disability to all of the people with whom she conducted phone interviews). Interview mode (in person vs. telephone) did not appear to have an effect on either the length or the overall quality of the interview. All interviews were tape-recorded either through the use of a standard tape recorder or through a device attached to the interviewer's phone; interviewees all consented to having their interviews tape-recorded before recording began. Interviews lasted between one and two hours. Interviews were transcribed by a research assistant and then checked by the interviewer for accuracy. The study was approved by the College's psychology department review process for research with human participants.

Content coding

The questions of particular interest for this study included those about general treatment by non-disabled people and about relations with non-disabled allies. The women were asked: a) How would you describe the general treatment you receive as a disabled person? b) How would you describe the differences between "good experiences" with non-disabled people you don't know or don't know well, and "bad ones?" c) Can you think of a non-disabled person you know who you have the sense really "gets it," whom you feel comfortable with and who treats you well? d) How can you tell when someone "gets it?" e) What are some clues you have when interacting with (talking to, hanging out with, etc.) that person? Follow-up questions or questions of clarification were asked as needed.

The answers to these questions were coded using a system developed by the two authors in an effort to capture the most salient themes present in the first five interviews conducted, and then applied to all of the interviews. We created and refined a codebook for recording the presence or absence of 26 specific categories within three broad themes related to experiences with non-disabled people. Responses to the questions above in all of the interviews were content coded for mentions of specific kinds of treatment by others (18 subcategories, e.g., explicit reference to condescension, pity, invisibility, being treated as "retarded," considered unattractive, etc.); behavioral cues during effective (and ineffective) interactions (six subcategories: explicit reference to eye contact, tone of voice, conveying of respect, being treated like "everyone else," general comfort, and lack of condescension); and mentions of specific kinds of accommodation, assistance, or access to opportunities (two subcategories: explicit reference to the provision of help that was both wanted and useful; and company to go places that would have been difficult or impossible to negotiate alone). Both authors coded three of the first five interviews that were conducted in order to establish inter-rater reliability. The second author's reliability with the resolved/expert codes was .91 (see White, 1992, for discussions of thematic content analysis and intercoder reliability of content-coded material). Double-coding by both authors was conducted on the eighth and ninth interviews coded and on the 13th and 14th interviews coded to ensure that no drift had occurred on the part of the primary coders' reliability (inter-rater reliability remained sufficiently high throughout the coding process). All disagreements were resolved through discussion.


Treatment by others

Although there was considerable variety in the women's descriptions of their general treatment by non-disabled people, a majority (13 women) mentioned that they are generally treated with condescension. Nine women mentioned that they are ignored or feel like they are invisible, especially when they experience what Fox (1994, cited in Fox & Giles, 1996) described as "third-party talk" (p. 267). For example, one woman who has polio and post-polio syndrome described being condescended to and ignored by non-disabled people as follows:

For example ...being treated like you don't exist or having someone talk to you in a patronizing way. They do that all the time, speak to you as if you are five years old. For example, I was out in the mall with a friend and I was trying to buy shoes the other day and the sales lady asked my friend whether or not I wanted to try those shoes in a different size. I had just finished telling her what I wanted and it was like that didn't even matter.

Five women also reported being pitied; three described being treated with impatience. In addition, more than half of the women mentioned that they are assumed to be unintelligent and four said that people treat them as if they are hard-of-hearing when they are not. As a woman with multiple sclerosis said, "The most common factor is they speak louder and more slowly like I can't hear or I cannot understand." Another woman with cerebral palsy related the following story:

I went into a restaurant with 10 college friends and this woman, very well-meaning, said that she wanted to take our order and she is yelling at me because she thinks I'm deaf, "WELL WHAT DO YOU WANT?" So all of my friends started yelling back, "I'LL TAKE ..." and she was super embarrassed because she realized I didn't have a hearing impairment, that it all had to do with my mobility. So she was very beside herself. Until people give me an opportunity to open my mouth, they have a tendency to think that I'm not as intelligent as I am.

Behavioral cues during effective (and ineffective) interactions

When asked to articulate the differences between good experiences with non-disabled people and bad ones, seven of the women said that their good experiences included eye contact, five mentioned a non-condescending tone of voice, eight referred to a general sense that the non-disabled person was "at ease" and eight mentioned people being respectful or knowledgeable. The overwhelming majority of the women described the experience of being treated in the same way that non-disabled people are treated. Our respondents' bad experiences were characterized by the absence of these behavioral cues. A woman who has cerebral palsy described the experience of being treated in the same way as other people are with the following story:

One of my friends was walking with me once and we got to this row of stairs and she's like, 'Oh, I'm really sorry this is really inconvenient for you but I didn't think about it' because they don't think about my disability...it is a part of me but it is not a part of who I am so I'm just like another one of the guys or girls or whatever.

As a woman who is quadriplegic as a result of a car accident describes, it is easy to tell when people are comfortable and it is also quite clear when they are not:
They just treat me like they did before I was disabled, I guess. Just talk. They are comfortable with me. The people who aren't comfortable with it aren't around any more I guess. I've got to say that I lost a lot of friends or I just don't have any contact with people that I used to. [What are your clues about how people feel?] I don't know how to explain it. I guess one example I can think of offhand was like being in a store and people are so busy staring at me that this lady actually walked into a wall. Another person was so busy staring at me that they tripped over a curb and fell flat on their face. It has happened. Those kinds of things happen to me all the time.

Another woman who was also disabled in a car accident explained the differences between effective and ineffective communications in the following way:
You can usually look...there is a look on the face, body language...they are relaxed looking. They don't look, they just look like they are comfortable with you. I look at their eyes, their face big smile. Some people tend to bend down and talk to you, or look at you directly in the face and shout as if you are deaf. It is not hard to pick up on that. [Allies also] have more knowledge about disability, accessibility, and they understand these things. I don't have to go through so many explanations trying to give reasons for wanting or not wanting to do something. They are aware.

The women in this study articulated some very clear examples of problematic interpersonal behavior on the part of non-disabled people (e.g., shouting, walking into walls). In contrast, there is a "you know it when you experience it" quality to their descriptions of effective interactions, which are characterized by a general ease and an understanding of disability that is communicated in a variety of ways.

Accommodation and effective help

The majority of the women reported that one of the best things that they got out of their relationships with non-disabled allies was real accommodation and effective help. As one woman with polio describes people who are effective allies, "They don't hover. They don't run to do anything. My mother will say to my daughter, 'Go help your mother.' And my daughter will say, 'If my mother wants help she will let me know.'" Another woman who also has polio explained that she appreciates people who "can help just because they want to" without "being caregivers or patronizing." The following story from a woman who has multiple sclerosis highlights that even hard-won efforts at real accommodation are not always entirely successful, however:

Just a couple of weeks ago I attended the wedding of a very dear friend of mine from college. She got married in ...a small town. ...A friend of mine originally said that we couldn't work it out for me to go ...because it was too much of a hassle.... And then she started kicking herself when she realized what she had done. I told her I was really glad she did it because I was going to. She called me up, had rented a motel room, had worked it out ...for me to go to the wedding if I still wanted to go. ...I was ecstatic that my friend would go to that extent for me. We went to the wedding...Got in the hotel room and it was not accessible my wheelchair was not going to fit in it but you know because it was a small town I accepted that okay. No problem, we'd work around it. Then any place and every place we went in [the small town] I got stared at...We got condescended to and ...I don't know how many times sitting in a restaurant people would look at my friend and say, "Do you know what she would like to eat?" And my friend would go, "I don't know, ask her, I'm not eating it." It was a real eye-opener for my girlfriend because she had never been in that kind of a situation before.

Some women (five of the interviewees in this sample) also described their relationships with non-disabled allies as providing them with opportunities to do things they might not otherwise be able to do. As a woman who is blind put it, "The world is a much wider place when you have a person who is really comfortable with you and can...help you go places and you can give in return."


We have provided one preliminary strategy for heeding Gill's (2001) call for studies that examine the "defining features of genuine allies to the disability community" (p. 396) and for illuminating the nature of intergroup relations from the target's perspective (Oyserman & Swim, 2001). While the "allies" that our respondents described are not political activist allies, nor are they professional allies, they are people who, in the experiences of the women we interviewed, "get it" about disability at least in the context of these particular relationships. Indeed, our analysis of interviews with 19 women with disabilities suggests that the majority of women notice some very concrete behaviors that non-disabled people display that make them likely allies: They make and maintain eye contact, they are not condescending, they provide real and useful help. It is important to note, however, that the women's examples of ineffective interactions often far outweighed effective ones. The qualities of ineffective interactions described by the women in our study were consistent with Fox's (1994, cited in Fox & Giles, 1996) finding that patronizing talk (baby talk, depersonalizing language, and third-party talk) often characterizes interactions between disabled and non-disabled people who do not know each other well. It is also critical to acknowledge that other people might experience some of the women's good experiences as negative. The potential for interpreting or experiencing interactions as either positive or negative makes it difficult to offer clear strategies for effective interability interaction[4].

Nevertheless, this project demonstrates the importance of exposing the experience of disability oppression as one strategy for improving intergroup relations between disabled and non-disabled people and for laying the groundwork for effective alliance building (see Moane, 2003, for an analysis of the usefulness of understanding oppression for social analysis and social change). The women in this study were very articulate and specific about the nature of their negative experiences with non-disabled people. This parallels Mellor's (2003) study documenting Aboriginal Australians' explicit experiences of racism. Both studies underscore the importance of examining intergroup interactions from the target's perspective, as the negative quality of such interactions may not be apparent by studying dominant group members' perspective (see Mellor, 2003, for an extensive discussion in the area of interracial interactions).

It is important to note that it was difficult for some of the women to think of people who understood their disability, and they believed this contributed directly to their isolation. When they could think of good ones, they were very clear about what distinguished "good" experiences with non-disabled people from "bad" ones and about the characteristics that set their "real allies" apart from others: Specifically, they appreciated people who could acknowledge and accommodate their disability but who did not let the disability wholly define their relationship (see Goffman, 1963, on the idea of "master status" and Hewstone & Brown, 1986, on social categorization, for discussions of the circumstances under which group membership organizes an entire interaction). This balance between an acknowledgement of an important social identity and an interaction based entirely on "master status" or "social categorization" is not easily achieved when an identity is as salient as it is in the interactions of these particular women (see Brueggemann, Garland-Thomson, & Kleege, 2005, for an engaging discussion of this issue). As Hewstone and Brown (1986) pointed out, understanding the effects of social categorization is critical not only to the development of theories of intergroup contact, but to the possibility that such contact might "'individuate' outgroup members" so that their own uniqueness in the context of their group membership may be recognized (p. 29). The women's descriptions of positive relationships also encourage us to look at the ways in which they are mutual; it is important to disrupt the assumption that disabled people are necessarily in need of more unreciprocated assistance than their able-bodied counterparts (see, e.g., Sprague & Hayes, 2000).

There are a number of limitations to the current study that must be acknowledged. We asked the women a very broad question about the "general treatment" that they receive by others, which may not have been interpreted by all respondents in the same way. In addition, the sample size was relatively small, and represented a group of exclusively women with many different kinds of disabilities. While the commonalities in their responses despite that diversity provide us with some confidence that having a visibly apparent physical disability may indeed be a shared experience, we do not have sufficient numbers to know whether some kinds of physical disabilities elicit more condescension, for example, than others. We do not know whether such variables as age, age of onset of the disability, or connection to a disability community might systematically influence the ways in which women represent their experiences with non-disabled people. Indeed, we do not know whether it is disability per se that is the reason for the women's poor (or good) treatment by others. Perhaps, in the case of our sample, it was the women's gender or their socioeconomic status, rather than their disability, which defined their intergroup experiences. Perhaps if we asked any women or specifically women of color, or poor women, or men for that matter what defined their negative experiences in interpersonal interactions, we would get similar responses. Indeed, it is likely true that many people appreciate being spoken to in a respectful tone of voice and, at least in the majority U.S. culture, being looked at directly in the eye. We suspect, however, that while these qualities and preferences might not be unique to the domain of disability, they would likely show up more among members of groups targeted by specific oppressions than they would among members of dominant groups.

It will be important to understand the issues raised in this paper more deeply, to collect data from larger groups of women and from men, and to learn more about what might be specific to disability and what might not be. Future research can explore whether the nature of "experiences with allies" that emerge in the domain of disability is common to other domains (e.g., race, class, nationality, etc.) in which there is a power differential between group members.

Despite these limitations and the need for more research, we think there is tremendous promise in work that attempts to understand the nature of "allies" both from the perspective of those targeted by discrimination and from the perspective of the allies themselves. Our data document that women with disabilities easily notice the extent to which non-disabled people feel nervous or uncomfortable around them. The importance of affect and, more specifically, fear in intergroup relations is receiving increasing attention. For example, Gaertner and Dovidio (2000) suggest that emotions such as discomfort and fear, rather than hostility or hate, characterize the aversive racism aimed at people of color. Indeed, these emotions are the very ones that are evident in our respondents' descriptions of their interpersonal interactions. Clearly, understanding the role of affect in intergroup contact is of critical importance (see also Dovidio et al., 2003, for a review of affective factors in intergroup relations).

Disability is but one domain in which to do the work of understanding intergroup interaction from the perspective of those targeted by discrimination, but we think it is an important one. Because of systematic segregation as reviewed in the introduction, disability is an area in which many people tend to have very little practice in intergroup interaction. In addition, the legacy of dependence on non-disabled people that characterizes the experience of some people with disabilities poses critical challenges to effective alliance building, as does the history of the oppression of disabled people by non-disabled people more generally (see the exchange between Drake [1997] and Branfield [1998] in Disability & Society for a discussion of these challenges in the area of disability rights activism).

Finally, the domain of disability encourages, if not requires, us to interrogate the issue of "help" carefully and systematically. Garland-Thomson (2002) suggested that "[d]isability itself demands that human interdependence and the universal need for assistance be figured into our dialogues about rights and subjectivity" (p. 17). Many people with disabilities do rely on non-disabled people for assistance with some activities for which non-disabled people do not require assistance. How does this influence the quality of their relationships with non-disabled people? Is this a dimension of alliance building in the domain of disability that is absent in other kinds of cross-identity interactions? Does it encourage us to look for ways in which help and assistance are actually bi-directional in effective relationships between disabled and non-disabled people, but difficult for outsiders to notice through the murkiness of disability oppression?

These provocative and challenging questions suggest a critical need for more systematic research into the nature of ally relationships generally and in the domain of disability specifically. Psychologists have made important contributions to reducing prejudice and oppression (see, e.g., Jones, 1997; Oskamp, 2000). But we have much work left to do including, as recent intergroup relations scholars have suggested, illuminate and understand the experience of discrimination from the target's perspective (e.g., Oyserman & Swim, 2001). This kind of understanding and attention to disability, and strategies for studying and improving interability relations more generally, will advance both research and practice in intergroup contact. Our research suggests that non-disabled people can interact with people with disabilities in ways that convey respect and trustworthiness. The data further suggest that there are clear distinctions between effective and ineffective assistance. Increased opportunities for real interaction in de-segregated spaces might facilitate the kind of ease that the women in this study said characterized the people they considered to be their allies.


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Author Note:

Danette Crawford died on November 18, 2003. This paper is dedicated to her memory.


[1] I would like to express my appreciation to the women who generously shared their experiences with us in the interviews. Thank you also to Kendrick Brown, Joi Lewis, Abigail Katowitz, Ann Kranz, Clay Steinman, Cynthia Wu, and Alyssa Zucker and anonymous reviewers who provided useful feedback on earlier drafts of this manuscript. The work described in this paper was partially supported by a Macalester College Keck Summer Research Partnership Grant awarded to the authors. Portions of this paper were presented as a poster at the Convention of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues in Toronto, Ontario, Canada (June, 2002) and as talks to the University of Minnesota psychology department's social and personality areas (November, 2002) and the Macalester College Social Science Colloquium (April, 2003), whose participants also provided useful feedback about this project.
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[2] The terms "people with disabilities" and "disabled people" are used interchangeably throughout this paper. Many disability rights activists believe that the term "people with disabilities" puts the person first without undue focus on their physical (or psychological) condition. Other disabled individuals, particularly in the UK, assert that "disabled person" should be used to highlight the salience of disability oppression. The use of both terms is meant to recognize and support both perspectives.
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[3] Deafness is a controversial category of disability. Many people who are deaf use American Sign Language and consider themselves to be a linguistic minority and members of a distinct community. Such culturally deaf people often refer to themselves as Deaf (with a capital "d") and tend not to identify as disabled (see Davis, 1995; Padden & Humphries, 1988, for further discussions of these distinctions). The one deaf woman who was interviewed for this study, however, was raised in the oral tradition (focused on speaking and lipreading), does not use American Sign Language, is not a member of the Deaf community, and identified herself as having a disability.
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[4] Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for this point.
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