Researchers at UNSW Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) have found that everyday interactions, media representation and presence in leadership roles are crucial to change community attitudes towards people with disability. Their findings inform the recent Changing Community Attitudes to Improve Inclusion of People with Disability report for the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability.

Senior Research Fellow at SPRC Rosemary Kayess is a woman with disability who was recently re-elected chair of the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. She says an inclusive society is one that supports the rights and independence of people with disability and where the person with disability gets what they have the right to.  

“Disabilities are an inherent part of our community. We need to recognise them as such and respect them as such,” Ms Kayess says.

“Respecting diversity requires us to ensure that people with disability have access to the same rights and lifestyle that everybody else has. The same rights as the general population.”

Read more: UNSW's Rosemary Kayess elected chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Importance of listening to people with disability

The SPRC uses co-design methodology embedded in all their research, as well as in their workplace. The Centre proactively employs people with disability and their voices are central to their processes and projects.

“The co-design process gives people with disability and those with lived experience a voice – that’s the most important thing in our research and that’s what makes it exciting,” says Mitch Beadman, SPRC researcher and Aboriginal Australian (Gadigal) who also has lived experience of disability.

“Listening to people with disability means allowing them to voice their opinions in a safe space without prejudice or judgment,” he says.

SPRC’s Professor Karen Fisher, who is lead researcher on the Changing Community Attitudes report with Professor Sally Robinson from Flinders University, says inclusivity and co-designing are about asking people with disability what they want and then reinforcing their voice.

“We're all in groups, whether it’s a sports club, school or workplace. So we all have a responsibility to reinforce the voice of people with disability in our groups and work towards making things more accessible.

“And that's one of the reasons why it's so important that Rosemary [Kayess] has her position at the UN. She works closely with government and advocates to make sure that sort of work can happen and it has an effect nationally and internationally.”


When it comes to making decisions about inclusivity, asking people with disability what they want and need is key. Image: Shutterstock

Changing attitudes involves a multi-pronged approach

By changing attitudes in society, we also change behaviours and the way people with disability are treated. Essentially, positive attitudes towards people with disability creates behaviour change, which consequently better protects people with disability against violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation.

“Changing attitudes is important because that's what people with disability say they need. In every part of the royal commission, in every session, every hearing, every submission, people with disability are talking about attitudes as the problem that is excluding them,” says Prof. Fisher.

“It's all very well saying ‘now we've got a ramp to the front door’, but if the person inside is then rude to you, or excludes you or doesn't serve you, the ramp is useless.”

Changing attitudes requires systematic change. For example, community projects or advocacy campaigns educate the public, but this progress needs to be reinforced with legislative change, like strong anti-discrimination laws. Similarly, enforcing laws that protect people with disability also creates attitude change.

“You can’t take the recommendations of the Changing Community Attitudes report individually – you have to take them all together,” says Prof. Fisher.

“Our report had case studies of various inclusivity initiatives. Some of them are bottom up, and some of them are top down. But it shows that you need to be taking multiple actions, and cumulatively they bring about change.”


We can all play a part in making society more inclusive. Image: Shutterstock

Read more: Inclusion is key to normalising disability

What can you do to help with disability inclusion?

We are all responsible for creating meaningful change within our sphere or community. Everyone can do something to contribute towards disability inclusion.

Here are some tips to help create a more respectful and inclusive society:

  1. Start by reflecting on your own attitudes and beliefs about people with disability. Questioning your own assumptions is a great place to start. Perhaps as a child you were taught beliefs that are now considered discriminatory or ableist. Go deep and analyse where this misinformation comes from in your own life. If you are someone who has a disability, you can also think about the experiences and perspectives of others. For instance, how gender, ethnicity or race affects people with disability.
  2. Start a conversation and listen to people with disability. Peer-to-peer connection is the most powerful way to persuasively communicate diverse perspectives. Speaking up or starting a dialogue in your networks about the experiences of people with disability can lead to practical changes and ultimately create a society where we treat one another with more respect. If you’re up for a challenge, get out of your own bubble and reach people from the ‘moveable middle’ rather than reinforcing existing positive attitudes.
  3. Emotional connection supports change. Direct contact and more interactions with people with disability will improve attitudes towards people with disability. Theatre shows, movies and talks that feature the stories of people with lived experience of disability can also positively contribute to a more respectful society. Check out Back to Back Theatre, the international prize-winning Australian theatre company, and the work of Bus Stop Films.
  4. Media representation matters. Advocacy campaigns are great, but the presence and visibility of people with disability in everyday media like TV shows and online is more powerful in shifting attitudes towards inclusivity. Check out these social media accounts documenting the experiences of living with disability: Carly Findlay, Dylan Alcott, Stories About Autism and keep an eye on the Attitude Foundation. By interacting with their content and sharing posts, you will be helping achieve an inclusive and respectful society.
  5. You can be part of structural change. Individual actions matter, but widescale change must be backed with legislation and policy. Writing to your local politicians and asking for legislative change like strengthening anti-discrimination laws can take your advocacy further. Also, you can get your sports club, school, workplace – any group that you may be part of – to become more accessible by accentuating the voices of people with disability within your group. You can also support groups working on creating structural, societal change like the KARI Foundation and People with Disability Australia.