Impact of physical disability and gender on personal space

Robert Kilbury

Persons with physical disabilities have experienced a long history of stigmatization and discrimination (Rubin & Roessler, 1995). This stigma has become intimately linked to persons having physical disabilities thus creating attitudinal barriers that make it extremely difficult for these people to lead productive lives. For Hahn (1987), the major obstacles for persons with physical disabilities included “bias, prejudice, and discrimination” (p, 182). Larson (1986) stated that this social stigma tends to isolate a person with a disability to a much greater degree than the disability itself.

Prejudice towards persons with physical disabilities has been well documented (e.g., Gellman, 1959, Goffman, 1963; Schneider & Anderson, 1980). Wright (1983) suggested that negative attitudes and perceptions about people with physical disabilities are held tenaciously and are therefore extremely difficult to change. Gender differences in this attitudinal research (e.g., Chesler, 1965: Fonosch & Schwab, 1981; Roush & Klockars, 1988) have been reported with men demonstrating more negative attitudes than women toward persons with physical disabilities. Prior social contact with people with physical disabilities (Chesler, 1965; Fichten & Amsel, 1986) and social desirability (Feinberg, 1967; Fichten & Amsel, 1986) have also been shown to be positively correlated with attitudes toward persons with physical disabilities.

One behavioral index of these negative attitudes is the tendency for individuals with disabilities to be physically avoided by persons who are not disabled. Kleck (1968) believed that one way to operationalize this concept of avoidance was to examine the personal space given to persons with physical disabilities. Personal space was systematically studied and popularized by anthropologist Edward T. Hall. Hall (1966) described four distinct areas of personal space associated with social interaction: intimate space (0-1.5 feet), casual personal space (1.5-4 feet), social consultant space (4-12 feet), and public space (12 feet and beyond).

Many researchers have analyzed the relationship between the stigma of physical disability and the personal space given to individuals. In general, Kleck’s (1968) belief that people with physical disabilities are given more personal space in social interactions than their peers without disabilities has been confirmed. For example, Langer, Fiske, Taylor and Chanowitz (1976) and Stephens and Clark (1987) reported that college students chose to sit significantly closer to a peer with no apparent physical anomaly than to the same person wearing a leg brace or using a wheelchair, respectively. Similarly, Worthington (1974) found in a field study that people would approach significantly closer to a man without a physical disability who was asking travel directions than to the same individual using a wheelchair.

Little attention, however, has been directed at examining potential gender differences that might exist since only men were used as the confederates with disabilities in the above studies (Langer et al., 1976; Stephens & Clark, 1987; Worthington, 1974). Other research has confirmed gender differences in attitudes toward individuals with disabilities (Somerville & Anderson, 1987) and personal space for persons without disabilities (Sommer, 1967). The purpose of the present study was to systematically examine the effect of gender and physical disability on personal space. Specifically, the following three research questions were addressed:

1. Will the personal space given to an individual differ as a function of that person’s disability status (i.e., absence versus presence of a physical disability)?

2. Will the personal space given to an individual differ as a function of the research participant’s gender?

3. Will the personal space given to an individual differ as a function of that person’s gender?


Participants. Students were recruited from undergraduate educational psychology courses at a midwestern university to participate in a study on personality style and attitudes. Ninety-seven students (60 women and 37 men) volunteered and gave written informed consent to participate in the study. They ranged in age from 19 to 49 years old (m = 22.30) and they reported 1.5 to 6 years of college completed (m = 2.76). Psychology (n = 33), elementary education, (n = 18), education (n = 6), and special education (n = 6) were the most frequently reported college majors of the participants. None of the participants had an observable physical disability.

Procedure. A 2 (disability status) x 2 (gender of confederate) x 2 (gender of participant) completely randomized experimental design was used. Each participant and was told that the experimental task was to complete “several personality measures.” The research study was described as attempting to establish the relationship between personality style and attitude formation. Each participant was individually exposed to the experimental confederate in the process of completing the self-report instruments. With the confederate already at his/her designated place in the testing room, the experimenter recorded the self selected seat chosen by the participant as he/she entered the room. The chosen seat was the dependent measure of personal space allowed the already-seated confederate. The confederate was either a 21-year-old male or female who was seated in a regular chair or in a wheelchair. Participants were randomly assigned to disability status and confederate gender conditions. Each participant completed the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (Spielberber, Gorsuch, & Lushene, 1970), the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale (Crowne & Marlowe, 1964), the Attitudes Toward Disabled Persons Scale-Form B (Yuker, Block, & Younng, 1966) and the Contact with Disabled Persons Scale (Yuker & Hurley, 1987). After completion of the self-report instruments, each participant was debriefed and explained the true purpose of the study.


A 2 x 2 x 2 analysis of variance was performed on the primary dependent variable of the personal space given to the confederate. This analysis revealed a significant main effect for the gender of the participant (F [1,89] = 4.01, p [less than] .05) indicating that men (m = 7.38 ft.) gave the confederate more personal space than did women (m = 6.50 ft.). In addition, a significant main effect for disability status (F [1,89] = 5.20, p [less than] .05) was obtained. In contrast to prior research, participants allowed less personal space to the individual using a wheelchair (m = 6.35 ft.) than they did for an apparently nondisabled person (m = 7.30 ft.). The main effect for confederate gender and all interactions were tested and found to be nonsignificant (all F’s [less than] 1.90, ns.). Focusing solely on the wheelchair using confederate, no significant differences were found regarding personal space as a function of the gender of the confederate, gender of the participant, or interaction (all F’s [less than] .64, ns.). Based on the above analyses, statistically significant findings were recorded for research questions 1 and 2. No statistically discernible findings were obtained for research question 3.

Additional correlational analyses revealed that the amount of personal space given the confederate in the wheelchair was not related to the participant’s disclosed social desirability (r[46] = -.09, ns.) state anxiety (r[46] =. 11, ns.), trait anxiety (r[46] = -.04, ns.), attitudes toward disabled persons (r[46] = -.17, ns.), or prior social contact with disabled persons (r[46] = .19, ns.).


Consistent with prior research (Sommer, 1967), men in the present study gave more personal space than women to the experimental confederate regardless of that person’s gender or disability status. In contrast to Langer et al. (1976), Stephens and Clark (1987), and Worthington (1974), participants in the current study chose to sit closer to the confederate in a wheelchair than one without an apparent disability. This latter finding was independent of gender and unrelated to the participant’s reported social desirability, anxiety, attitudes toward disabled persons, and prior social contact with disabled persons.

The unexpected finding for personal space suggests that recent legislation (e.g., Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the 1991 Civil Rights Act, Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1992) may be reducing the stigma experienced by individuals with disabilities. Kilbury, Benshoff and Rubin (1992) noted that enabling legislation produces increased social interaction and more acceptance of people with disabilities. Similarly, a recent survey conducted by Harris and Associates (1991) found that public attitudes toward people with disabilities are improving. For example, their survey respondents held positive opinions of workers with disabilities and many indicated that they had friends with disabilities. According to Harris et al. (1991), this improvement in attitudes seems to be especially true for younger, better educated Americans. Since the participants in the current study were both relatively young and attending college, this may represent another potential explanation for our relatively novel results.

While the above explanations for our findings are plausible, they were not directly tested in the present study. Similarly, generalizations from this study must be guarded because it was conducted using undergraduates at one mid-western university. Additional research is needed to replicate and confirm these optimistic findings.


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COPYRIGHT 1996 National Rehabilitation Association

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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