This qualitative study examines the experiences and attitudes of elementary school students regarding individuals with disabilities, following five weeks of disability awareness instruction. It also evaluates the social validity of disability awareness instruction as an intervention tool based on student perceptions, and compares the use of a didactic teaching approach with one that also incorporates the use of bibliotherapy techniques. The current study is part of a larger study using a pre-test, post-test experimental group design (Teerlink, 2012). Participants included 322 elementary school students. Each class of first through sixth grade students was randomly assigned to one of three conditions: a bibliotherapy treatment group (n = 125), a didactic teaching group (n = 124), and a no-intervention control group (n = 73). Data for this study were collected at post-test only, using a short-answer, open-ended questionnaire administered to all participants, as well as focus group interviews conducted with three to four students from each grade level. Results indicate that age and grade level seemed to have a progressively strong influence on whether students knew someone with a disability or recognized the presence of a disability among those with whom they were acquainted. In their attempts to define what it means to have a disability, as well as to identify specific disabilities, student responses seemed to lean towards observable impairments such as Down syndrome, physical disabilities, and speech/language impairments. The overwhelming majority of participants indicated that they would like to be friends with someone who had a disability and that the most important thing they learned from the disability awareness lessons was to be kind and helpful to those with disabilities. Although the majority of students expressed the desire to be friends with people who had disabilities and clearly recognized the importance of treating them with kindness and compassion, students were equally split on whether or not these ideals were actually being implemented by students in their school. In addition, when students were given the opportunity to describe their own observations and examples of how students with disabilities were treated at their school, they were more likely to describe incidents of conflict or unpleasant interactions rather than recalling incidents of kindness or positive interactions. Students specifically identified communication issues and coping with stressful or frustrating situations as the biggest challenges or fears associated with trying to be friends with someone who has a disability. Students from both the bibliotherapy group and the didactic teaching group seemed to share similar attitudes towards individuals with disabilities and respond with equally positive enthusiasm to the intervention. Implications for future research and practice are discussed.



College and Department

David O. McKay School of Education; Counseling Psychology and Special Education



Date Submitted


Document Type





bibliotherapy, disabilities, childhood attitudes, inclusion, peer acceptance