Attitudes and behavior towards disabled, by Guenther Cloerkes

Experimental empirical tests have shown that immediate reactions to visual disability is characterized by extensive and largely uncontrollable agitation or nervosity.

If you are interested in what, generally and by and large, physically deviant people can do to others simply by being there and by exposing themselves, keep reading.

Original text by Guenther Cloerkes. Excerpted translation based on original text by Guenther Cloerkes but not a full and direct translation – by Wolf Schweitzer. (C) Copyright Guenther Cloerkes 1985.

Pathologic structure of interactions with physically deviant people

Psycho-physical reactions

Experimental empirical tests have shown that immediate reactions to visual disability is characterized by extensive and largely uncontrollable agitation or nervosity.

That means the non-disabled person risks to get irritated, nervous or agitated to a high degree and that that person might end up being largely out of their control. So their immediate reaction is characterized by loss of control combined with a type of excited irritation.

Equally, freezing of motor response can happen, as well as freezing of facial expressions or gestures. Physiological reactions may not classify as ‘behavior’. However there is no non-behavior: also remaining silent and staring is a significant reaction.

Further reading: Krappmann, Lothar: Soziologische Dimensionen der Identität. Strukturelle Bedingungen für die Teilnahme an Interaktionsprozessen. Stuttgart 1969. – Krappmann, Lothar: Neuere Rollenkonzepte als Erklärungsmöglichkeit für Sozialisationsprozesse. In: Familienerziehung, Sozialschicht und Schulerfolg, hg. v. der b:e Redaktion, Weinheim 1971, 161-183.

Emotional agitation, fear, stress et cetera can be measured through skin resistance measurement. Significant stress was measured when non-disabled people saw visibly disabled partners for interaction. Heart rate and significant stress have an immense significance on affect. And affective state has an immense social significance.

Aversion, repulsion (Ekel), physical nausea as immediate affective reaction to bodily defects are well known. These strong reactions are regarded as not amenable to influence. In other words the people that suffer these reactions are not guilty or responsible for them. These subconscious mechanisms are also termed ‘aesthetic-sexual aversion’.

Reading: Siller, Jerome, Abram Chipman, Linda T. Ferguson und Donald H. Vann: Attitudes of the non-disabled toward the physically disabled. Studies in reactions to disability XI. New York (New York U., School of Education) 1967 (a).

Aversion reaction related quotes contain the following:

  • “There was this lump of flesh, a stump, that twitched. Awful!”
  • “I cannot look at this. When I see this I have to throw up!”
  • Bodily sensation: “I feel a cold ripple run down my back”
  • Bodily sensation: “I get a strange feeling in my stomach”
  • When seeing children with dysmelia: “I cannot keep eating – I am nauseated”.

Also, people with decades of intensive professional exposure to disabled people admitted to have feelings such as nausea, repulsion, aversion or insecurity. It seems that we are dealing with ‘originary’ reactions of a fundamental type impact against physically deviant people.

Sudden confrontation can cause a shock for some non disabled people. The extent of conflicting emotions can paralyze a non-disabled person.

“This kind of situationally inappropriate emotion is so swift and overwhelming as to approximate a state of shock, leaving them expressively naked, so to speak”. The staring at visibly disabled people is described to happen under shock: “I could not help but stare at these arm stumps. Like a rabbit that is stared at by a snake and that is paralyzed by that, I felt paralyzed and had to stare at these arm stumps all the time”.

Even open aggression can happen as part of sudden reactions of startled non-disabled people, even though these are reported as rather rare when facing visibly disabled people.That may be because our society rigidly defines visibly disabled people as ‘equal’ and ‘need protection’. The non-disabled person is socially constrained and under enormous pressure to conform to these societal standards. That means they have to ‘pull themselves together’, they must perform the act of treating the situations in the most acceptable way possible despite their own nervous system running ape shit, despite their own nervous system going into red alert, despite their own nervous system basically abandoning them in terms of support, emotions and control. “Regardless of the degree of aversion felt toward the disabled, the non-disabled are normatively not permitted to show these negative feelings in any way, and their fear of making a verbal or nonverbal slip – indicating their emotions renders the interaction quite formal and rigid” (Safilios-Rothschild, 1970, 129).

Insecurity, rigidity, formal code, stress, fear, deep levels of discomfort dominate interactions of disabled and non-disabled people. The interactions are almost all restricted to such rigid and fear driven exchanges – they are “pathological”, as Goffman summarizes. Normal social interactions become virtually impossible as long as no productive way to relax tension is found.

Tense interaction

Goffman’s ‘irrelevance rule’ requires partners for interactions to allow for a whole and intact perception of the respective bodies - Further reading: Goffman, Erving: Encounters. Two studies in the sociology of interaction. Indianapolis 1961.The mere visual disability itself is the reason that interactions with physically disabled people can be very difficult for a non-disabled person. “A certain generality and diffuseness in the attentions that parties are expected to direct to each other. Even if only superficially, one is expected to remain oriented to the whole person and to avoid the expression of a precipitous or fixed concern with any single attribute of his, however noteworthy or laudable it may be” (Davis, 1961, 123).

Due to the social imperative of the irrelevance rule, any person is required to direct their total attention to the whole other person – yet all of their mind craves to examine closely all that which particularly and individually causes that visible difference. Depending on the nature and extent of the visible disability it can monopolize a part or all of the attention of the non-disabled person, and that is believed to be an enormous source of stress. Such stress and insecurities are the consequence.

Reaction to visible handicap can be tactless and rude. More often, visible handicap is treated as non-existent (which can be hard if it is very obvious). At any rate, the elevated stress level and the overwhelmed senses of the non-disabled interaction partner force that person to narrow down their range of expression. Only the declared subject of the interaction thus will be addressed (normally, subjects can change). Non-disabled people will exhibit discrete but well known and typical signs of discomfort and embarrassment: colloquialisms are avoided or stopped at the last word, constant staring to other parts of the room than the direction of the disabled person, high pitched stressed out voices faking a relaxed mood, obsessive chatting that overplays nervousness, being embarrassingly serious when instead humor or stupid remarks would be well in order (also read Goffman about this).

Research results showed this:

  • Non-disabled people interacting with visibly disabled people feel tension. Not a bit of it, but a lot. There is a lot of tension. Their behavior is more rigid and less variable than interactions among non-disabled people. Interactions had a tendency to be terminated earlier. The physical distance chosen was bigger.
  • There is an initial opinion distortion: non-disabled people tended to describe disabled people more favorably initially than they ought to given the person and given the interaction. With increasing exposure, more adequate attitudes toward disabled people resulted.
  • Disabled people may tend to reciprocate tense, fearful and stressed attitudes and responses. They may also want to end such an interaction rather quickly.
  • Those of the disabled people that felt most uneasy tend to be the ones that comply to certain norms the most: one norm requires stereotypical behavior that is expected by non-disabled people. Another norm requires disabled people to be grateful and favor religion as subject over sports or external appearances.

Ambivalence and behavioral insecurity, lack of social identity

Ninety percent (90%) of people interviewed for this agreed that “many people do not have any idea how to act towards a disabled person”. The degree of insecurity is very high inasmuch as interactions between disabled and non-disabled people are concerned. “When we encounter a blind man, the rules we apply to him are extremely vague … Our lack of direct experience makes the situation more uncertain”.$

This situation is thought to be caused by lack of direct experience when dealing with disabled people. Also, our societal behavioral norms are insufficient in that they do not cover disability. Lack of norms means lack of guidance for interaction. A non-disabled person stumbling into an interaction with a disabled person suddenly is confronted with a lack of rules and that can be deeply distressing.

While behavior towards disabled people is not guided by societal norms or rules, we do have norms about attitude. Unfortunately two major attitude norms are contradicting each other which adds to the normative ambiguity. This can make it very hard for the non-disabled person to find their way:

  • On one hand, socialization will value disability as a negative attribute. We learn that disability generally is a bad thing.
  • Officially however, disability is seen as disadvantage that requires our support. A non-disabled person that rejects a disabled person and treats them with distance lacks official societal justification.

Left alone by contradicting norms regarding attitude and by missing norms regarding behavior, non-disabled people face distress and insecurity alone. They go through feelings of ambivalence, fear and not knowing how to act appropriately. Typically at least part of this very distressing circumstance is ultimately blamed on the disabled person.

Typically, people with dysmelia or right arm amputees may not be able to shake hands in a non-problematic fashion. When the non-disabled person thoughtlessly extends their hand a stressful situation is likely to occur. A reporter about to interview a Contergan child once said “I am insecure. Shall I offer to shake hands? How do you greet someone with no arms? I was relieved that the first greeting was done without everyone shaking hands. But the eerie feeling remains”.

“One of the things we do upon meeting someone for the first time is to impute to him a familiar social identity … From the identity we have imputed to him, we anticipate what his tastes and interests will be, the kinds of attitudes he will have, and how he is likely to behave. We search for clues to help us to classify the Person as a type of individual, and we then apply norms of conduct associated with “his type” in order to guide us in our subsequent interaction with him. Unless we can do this quickly and accurately, we are at a loss as to how to proceed, and experience the situation as embarrassing and stressful”.

The lack of a clear social identity pushes the disability – mostly “just” an attribute – to dominate the labeling. An almost obsessive feel comes from constantly defining people by “the blind”, “the amputees”, “the paralyzed”.

Thus, lacking clear social rules that may render interaction with them less stressful, disabled people invariably face social deprivation, discrimination and isolation.


[work in progress]

Cite this article:
Wolf Schweitzer: Technical Below Elbow Amputee Issues - Attitudes and behavior towards disabled, by Guenther Cloerkes; published June 17, 2009, 20:02; URL:

BibTeX: @MISC{schweitzer_wolf_1397872770, author = {Wolf Schweitzer}, title = {{Technical Below Elbow Amputee Issues - Attitudes and behavior towards disabled, by Guenther Cloerkes}}, month = {June}, year = {2009}, url = {} }