On Their LEVEL: How Participation in a University Student Group Shapes Members’ Perceptions of Disability

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Abstract

This qualitative case study examines the experiences of 27 university students participating in LEVEL, a campus-based group that pairs undergraduates (enactors) and their classmates, who self-identify as having physical disabilities (recipients). The purpose of this research was to understand how enactors’ perceptions of physical disability were shaped by their participation in LEVEL. The conceptual framework used to guide this research melds Gordon Allport’s (1954) social theory of prejudice with disability-based constructs. In addition, it draws on Allport’s contact theory to discuss ways to reduce prejudice, especially as it relates to individuals with disabilities. Findings reveal that contact promotes the formation of friendships; increased contact influences language and perceptions of disability; and physical barriers engender social barriers. Since there are few on-campus groups that bridge academic and social environments between students of all abilities in a positive and meaningful way, participation in LEVEL represents 1 such point of interaction. By creating social spaces for individuals with disabilities and their typically abled peers to connect, LEVEL offers a promising new way to think about how to meet the needs of an underserved population. Because research on social contact between college students and their peers with physical disabilities is limited, this study works to fill this void.

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