Citation: Fichten, C.S., Amsel, R., Robillard, K., Tagalakis, V., Wright, J., Sabourin, S. & Libman, E. (1997). Integration of people with physical and sensory impairments / Intégration sociale des personnes handicapées physiquement et sensoriellement. The Sir Mortimer B. Davis Jewish General Hospital - Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research: Scientific report 1994-1995 (pp. 172-175) / Hôpital Générale Juif - Sir Mortimer B. Davis - Institut Lady Davis de Recherches Médicales: Rapport scientifique 1996-97 (pp. 183-186). Montréal, Québec.


Project Director: Dr. Catherine S. Fichten
Senior Investigators: Ms. Rhonda Amsel
Ms. Kristen Robillard
Ms. Vicki Tagalakis
Dr. John Wright
Dr. Stéphane Sabourin
Dr. Eva Libman

Scientific Activity

The number of individuals with physical disabilities who reside in the community has risen dramatically during the Canadian Decade of Disabled Persons (1983-1992). Recently, people with physical, sensory, and medical disabilities have been entering the "mainstream" in increasing numbers. No longer segregated in special schools, residences and institutions, individuals who have physical impairments have become a common sight on the streets, in public places such as shopping areas and cinemas, in schools, colleges, and universities as well as in the workplace.

Legislation and advances in technology continue to provide better means to surmount environmental and physical barriers, allowing people with disabilities to become more active in all aspects of community life. But physical accessibility is only the first step. Full social integration means much, much more. Many of the invisible barriers remain, making it timely to address these "hidden" obstacles: nondisabled individuals' attitudes, values, beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Breaking down the invisible barriers and facilitating the social integration of people with disabilities has posed many challenges. Perhaps the most formidable obstacles encountered have been the attitudinal barriers. Able-bodied individuals behave differently toward those with disabilities. They are also often uncomfortable with those who have disabilities and many have negative attitudes; these can lead to problems in interaction and integration. In many cases, discomfort and negative attitudes have denied people with disabilities full access to the social and economic life of the community.

The focus of our research has been on the social and economic integration of people with physical and sensory disabilities. Of course, this involves more than architectural or policy considerations; it requires effective interaction between peers, both in occupational and recreational contexts. Major impediments to effective interaction are nondisabled individuals' discomfort and lack of ease with disabled peers and their stereotyped characterizations of people with disabilities. Our research has, therefore, focused on understanding factors which influence nondisabled individuals' thoughts feelings and behaviors, on examining variables which support and impede social and occupational encounters between individuals with disabilities and their nondisabled peers, and on designing interventions where the goal is to facilitate problem-free interaction.

To accomplish these objectives, we have continued to elaborate our Attentional Mechanisms Model of Interaction Strain (AMMIS); this model integrates known findings and generates hypotheses about the causes of interaction difficulties and about means to remedy problems. The major objective of our program of research was to evaluate and refine the model by (a) examining the nature of attentional processes, (b) exploring the role and impact of attentional focus on affect, cognitions, and attitudes which accompany and influence interaction between able-bodied individuals and their peers who have disabilities, and (c) preparing and evaluating intervention strategies, based on the model which were expected to alter the maladaptive attitudes, cognitions, and affect which interfere with the social integration of people with disabilities. Additional objectives concerned the exploration of related methodological issues.

Novelty. A recent investigation tested the hypothesis that common reactions to people with disabilities are partly due to the attentional consequences of novelty. 351 college students completed personality measures and indicated their feelings, self and other-focused thoughts, and behavioral intentions concerning a hypothetical encounter with an "average" student or with 2 types of novel peers, one of whom had a disability.

We expected that participants would feel more comfortable with non-novel average peers than with novel individuals. We also expected them to have fewer negative self-focused thoughts concerning interacting with non-novel than with novel peers, regardless of the nature of novelty. We also expected that both the presence and the nature of the novelty would influence other-focused thoughts. Behavioral intentions were expected to reflect both self and other-focused evaluations; we predicted that participants would be most likely to indicate that they would stay with a peer in the non-novel average condition.

A related objective was to examine the model's prediction that there exists a negative relationship between dispositional self-focusing and negative evaluations of oneself as well as "mindless" evaluations and prototypes of the other person. Confirming this prediction requires demonstrating that dispositional self-consciousness is closely related to negative affect and negative evaluations of oneself during an interaction, regardless of the status of the interaction partner, and to overly favorable and/or unfavorable evaluations of the other person in an interaction when he or she is novel.

To explore these predictions we performed multivariate and univariate analysis of variance comparisons on scores of 351 non-disabled college students, 142 males and 209 females. Results provide partial support for the AMMIS model. The prediction that self-focusing would be related to negative affect and negative self evaluation was upheld. Predictions related to other-focused evaluations were, generally, not confirmed. Indeed, the only notable finding on other-focused evaluations is that participants had more thoughts about the other person - both positive and negative - if he or she had a disability. Although this is consistent with a novelty explanation, other explanations are also possible. Predictions related to the impact of novelty on self-focused thinking were supported, as people were found to be consistently less comfortable and to experience more negative thinking during interaction with novel individuals than with average peers. However, the type of novelty also had an effect, with the disabled condition producing the most negative self-focused thoughts and feelings.

Consistent with expectations, correlational results show that dispositional self-focusing was significantly related to the frequency of both kinds of negative self-focused thoughts and, to a lesser extent, with States of Mind ratios (SOMs), which reflect both positive and negative thoughts. Scores were generally not related significantly to either kind of positive thought frequency. Contrary to expectations, correlations with other-focused thoughts were generally low and non-significant.

Findings on novelty and on other-focused evaluations suggest that attitude change programming - where the aim is to produce more positive images of people with disabilities - is likely to be useful in the social integration of persons with disabilities. Our results suggest that the mechanism of action of such benefits is likely to be through making people with disabilities less novel. Results on discomfort and on self-focused thinking, too, suggest that making nondisabled individuals more familiar with people who have disabilities is likely to help. Thus, the mere presence of people with disabilities in the community, in the workplace, in commercials, and on television shows, doing everyday ordinary things, is likely to help resolve interaction difficulties.

Personality factors. Another recent study explored the impact of personality on nondisabled individuals' reactions toward people with disabilities. Personality factors such as social anxiety, shyness, and the tendency to self-monitor have long been known to influence behaviors as well as beliefs, thoughts and feelings about social encounters in many contexts. Situational factors, including characteristics of the other person in an encounter, have also been shown to influence thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

In the disability literature it is generally assumed that personality characteristics have the same influence on behaviors, thoughts, and feelings about encounters with different types of people. Nevertheless, both casual observation as well as the social skills literature suggest that personality and situational factors interact. Thus, people who lack social poise may react differently from their more confident peers when interacting with various types of people. Consistent with this assumption, we expected that an encounter with a less threatening individual, such as a an individual with a disability, would be easier for individuals who are socially anxious, shy, or relatively unskilled at impression management than would interacting with an average peer.

Both correlational and ANOVA results suggest that in encounters with familiar peers, people who are socially anxious, shy, or poor at impression management had "worse" scores than their more socially poised counterparts. Specifically, the findings show that they were less comfortable and had a poorer balance of positive to negative self-focused thoughts (SOM ratio) in the nondisabled condition. Socially less adept individuals, however, did not have worse self-focused or other-focused scores than their more socially poised counterparts in the disabled condition. Thus, it seems that people who find casual social interaction with nondisabled peers problematic are not especially discomfited by an encounter with someone who has a disability. This indicates that thoughts and feelings seem to be independent of social poise when the interaction is with peers who have a disability.

Social skills. Another study tested aspects of the Attentional Mechanisms Model of Interaction Strain (AMMIS) by examining correlates of dispositionally self-focused attention and by comparing two filmed interventions: one of these modeled appropriate behaviors when encountering someone who is blind (symbolic modeling of skills), while the second featured a blind man during everyday activities (self-disclosure). Results on 255 nondisabled college students indicate that, compared to no intervention, both filmed interventions appear to have had beneficial effects on thoughts, feelings, self-efficacy beliefs, and attitudes. However, while we expected symbolic modeling to result in more favorable outcomes than self-disclosure, especially for fostering strong self-efficacy expectations, this was clearly not the case. In fact, self-disclosure, which we viewed as a control condition, generally produced superior results.

The findings suggest that caution should be exercised when administering a skills training intervention to people who might not have been aware that they lacked skills, who may not have been aware of specific limitations of people who have a disability, and who do not expect to need these skills in the near future. In certain circumstances, a modeling approach could even result in negative affect, negative self-evaluation, and negative other-focused thinking.

Our data suggest that symbolic modeling can have either a positive, neutral, or negative impact. Factors influencing the direction probably include the target being evaluated - oneself or the other person - and prior awareness of difficulties as well as the expectation of future interaction requiring the modeled behavior. Therefore, inclusion of a skills training intervention should be carefully timed and delivered within the context of an overall multi-component program of attitude and behavior change.

Cognitive assessment. We have also conducted a series of methodological inquiries about the consequences of different means of evaluating thoughts, about the properties and functions of positive and negative self, other, and situation-focused thoughts, as well about various means of coding and transforming thought listing data.

In this regard, we recently completed an investigation of methodological confounds and inconsistencies in evaluations of self-statements. These confounds hamper exploration of conceptual issues in cognitive assessment. Although many measures incorporate both positives and negatives, there is confusion in reporting; raw frequencies, difference scores, problematic ratios (Positive/Negative, Negative/Positive), and States of Mind (SOM) ratios are all reported. In this investigation we examined methodological issues in evaluations of valenced self-statements in 796 individuals and formulated empirically based guidelines for common usage. Our findings clearly indicate that: (1) valenced thought frequencies and SOM ratios yielded different information, (2) in SOM ratio calculations, inventory scale endpoints should always start at 0, (3) if scales do not start at 0, scores can be converted mathematically, and (4) a correction of +1 should be used whenever either 0 positive or 0 negative thoughts are reported. (5) We also found that even extremely positive SOMs (.91 - 1) are adaptive; thus, SOMs are monotonic and can be used in statistical analyses without transformation.

Recent Publications

Fichten, C.S., Lennox, H., Robillard, K., Wright, J., Sabourin, S., & Amsel, R. (in press). Attentional focus and attitudes toward peers with disabilities: Self focusing and a comparison of modeling and self-disclosure. Journal of Applied Rehabilitation Counseling.

Fichten, C.S. Amsel, R., Robillard, K., Sabourin, S., & Wright, J. (in press). Personality, attentional focus, and novelty effects: Attitudes toward peers with disabilities. Rehabilitation Psychology.

Amsel, R. & Fichten, C.S. (in press). Recommendations for self-statement inventories: Use of valence, endpoints, frequency and relative frequency. Cognitive Therapy and Research.

Fichten, C.S. & Schipper, F. (1996). Preparing students with disabilities for the postsecondary experience. Applying Research to the Classroom, 14(3), 7-11.

Fichten, C.S., Goodrick, G., Amsel, R., & Libman, E. (1996). [Original article and title are in Japanese]. (Students and their professors: A guide for the college student with a disability). In Y. Tomiyasu, R. Komatsu, and T. Koyazu (Eds.), Support for university students with disabilities: A new feature of universities (pp. 153-229). Tokyo: Keio University Press.

Fichten, C.S., Goodrick, G., Amsel, R., & Libman, E. (1996). [Original article and title are in Japanese]. (Teaching college students with disabilities: A guide for professors). In Y. Tomiyasu, R. Komatsu, and T. Koyazu (Eds.), Support for university students with disabilities: A new feature of universities (pp. 233-323). Tokyo: Keio University Press.

Fichten, C.S. (1995). Oh, to sleep... Investigating insomnia and the aging process. In E. Bander, M. Boulle, J. Moore, A. Pringle, P. Simpson & C. Southmayd (Eds.). In celebration: Words and images from Dawson College (pp. 115-116). Montréal: Dawson College.

Fichten, C.S., Amsel, R., Tagalakis, V., & Robillard, K. (1995). Integration of students with disabilities in the college milieu - Fundamental research. Actes du 7e Colloque de l'A.R.C. / Proceedings of the 7th Annual Meeting of A.R.C., (pp. 177-186).

Fichten, C.S. (1995). Paradigms, partnerships, and the next generation of movers and shakers: College students with disabilities / Paradigmes, partenariats, et la prochaine génération d'acteurs dynamiques de changement: les étudiants handicapés des collèges. Canadian Journal of Rehabilitation, 9(1), 3-16.

Fichten, C.S. (1995). A first step: Basic resources on sexuality for people with and without disabilities. The Able Informer [On-line], 1(9), 3-4. Available:

Fichten, C.S. (1995). Success in postsecondary education: Hidden barriers and how to overcome them. Rehabilitation Digest, 25(4), 16-21.

Fichten, C.S. (1995). Let's compile a list of resources! The Able Informer - Resource Newsletter for People with Disabilities [On-line], 1(7), 6-7. Available:

Fichten, C.S., Robillard, K., & Sabourin, S. (1994). The attentional mechanisms model of interaction strain. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities. 6(3), 239-254.

Recent Conference Papers

Fichten, C.S. (1996). Nondisabled individuals' reactions toward people with disabilities. In D. Dunn & T. Elliott (Co-Chairs), Advancing psychosocial theory in disability: The rehabilitation and social-personality psychology interface. Symposium at the American Psychological Association annual convention, Toronto. Abstracted in Rehabilitation Psychology, 1996, 41,(2), 166.

Gething, L. & Fichten, C.S. (1996). Interaction with Disabled Persons Scale: A comparison between Canada and Australia. Presentation at the XXVI International Congress of Psychology, Montréal. Abstracted in International Journal of Psychology, 1996, 31(3&4), 59. (#154.88).

Fichten, C.S., Amsel, R., Tagalakis, V., & Robillard, K. (1995). L'intégration d'étudiants handicappés en milieu collégial - Une recherche fondamentale. Presentation at the annual convention of the Association pour la recherche au collégial, Jonquière, Québec. Abstracted in Programme: 7e colloque de l'A.R.C. 10. Montréal: A.R.C.

Fichten, C.S. (1994). Breaking down the invisible barriers: Challenges for the 21st century / Eliminer les barrières invisibles: le défi du XXIe siècle. Keynote address at the annual convention of the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS) / Partners in Education / Partenaires en éducation, November, Montréal. Abstracted in NEADS: Partners in Education Conference Program / Partenaires en Education Programme Officiel. Ottawa: NEADS, Carleton University.

Fichten, C.S., Creti, L., Amsel, R., Brender, W., Sabourin, S., & Libman, E. (1994). Thoughts in stressful situations. Presentation at the Canadian Psychological Association annual convention, Penticton, B.C. Abstracted in Canadian Psychology, 35(2a), 192 (#51).

Amsel, R., Fichten, C.S., Creti, L., Wright, J., & Libman, E. (1994). Evaluation of the States-of-Mind (SOM) Model: Is Positive Monologue really dysfunctional? Presentation at the Canadian Psychological Association annual convention, Penticton, B.C. Abstracted in Canadian Psychology, 35(2a), 191 (#50).

Research Staff

Kathleen McAdams, D.E.C., Darlene Judd, D.E.C., Fay Schipper, M.Ed.