In the 1950’s, psychologist Gordon Allport wrote about intergroup contact as a remedy for prejudice. Allport postulated that bringing different groups of people together is necessary, but not sufficient, to improve intergroup relations. In order to meaningfully reduce prejudice, Allport emphasized, contact between people from different groups must be one-on-one, cooperative, condoned by authority figures, and members of the two groups must have equal status. Allport’s “contact hypothesis” has been supported by evidence in the lab, as well as through natural experiments like the racial desegregation of schools in the American South.
Beginning in the 1970’s, many children with disabilities are attending their neighborhood schools with nondisabled peers. It is often thought that such integration will reduce ableism in our society. Teachers and principals may set up “buddy” programs or “friendship circles” to encourage contact between disabled and nondisabled students, in the name of reducing ableism. But, some school inclusion programs fail one of Allport’s critical tests: they place the nondisabled student in a helper role, and the disabled student in a lower-status “helpee” role.
As the below article points out, the status imbalance that some schools unwittingly encourage may explain why many mainstreamed disabled kids “may have successful buddy systems during school hours, and still be isolated after three o’clock.” In other words, relationships based on helping alone don’t confer the benefits of real, reciprocal friendships. Instead of breaking down barriers, they can serve to reinforce existing stereotypes and hierarchies.
Instead, the authors suggest fostering the natural development of friendships, teaching the nondisabled kids to listen rather than jumping in to help, and appealing to children’s natural sense of justice. This article is a bit long, but I encourage readers to pay attention to the practical suggestions presented at the end. The need for real inclusion is stronger now than ever. As the authors state:
We must guard against merely creating another generation of “professionals” and “clients”, with the former group seen as perpetually competent, and the latter, perpetually needy.