Consequences of Confronting Patronizing Help for People with Disabilities: Do Target Gender and Disability Type Matter?

People with disabilities (whether they are blind or they use a wheelchair) are rated as ruder and less warm after confronting patronizing help. Blind people are penalized more along these metrics than those using wheelchairs and patronizing behavior towards them is perceived as more appropriate. Gender does not have an impact on the perceived warmth of people with disabilities, before or after confronting patronizing help.


Disability is defined as a mental or physical impairment that limits major life activities. In 2015, people with disabilities comprised one fifth of American adults, and even nondisabled individuals may acquire a disability at any point of their lives. 

Ableism refers to the discrimination, stereotyping and oppression that people with disabilities experience, and is rooted in the idea that a person is inferior for having a disability. Behind these prejudices is the nuclear idea that nondisabled individuals, or people who do not have a disability, are superior and the standard upon which people with disabilities should be measured against. 

What are the effects of these harmful ideas? On the structural level, they center nondisabled individuals, which leads to physical, social, communication and attitudinal barriers that impede the equal participation of people with disabilities in everyday life. Some examples of barriers are the lack of accessible public spaces; such as ramps, elevators and Braille signage; lack of sign language communication in media; and, in everyday interactions, hostility and violence towards people with disabilities as well as patronizing behaviors such as unwanted help. 

Patronizing behaviors are encounters with unsolicited help that represent one of the most common expressions of ableism suffered by people with visible physical or sensory disabilities. Although individuals offering help might have good intentions, these actions give rise to harmful effects, as they can pose psychological costs by implying the recipients lack the ability to take care of their own well-being. 

This study explores the negative effects that people with disabilities experience when rejecting unwanted help. The researchers approached this topic from an intersectional perspective, highlighting the consequences of confronting patronizing behaviors to different segments of the disability community and showing that ableism is not a homogenous phenomenon, but rather something that differs based on the targeted disability. Furthermore, they examined how gender might interact with how people with different disabilities are perceived. 


Individuals with a disability were perceived as less warm after confronting patronizing help. However, there were some differences depending on whether the individual was blind or a wheelchair user.

  • Individuals with a disability (whether they were blind or used a wheelchair) were perceived as less warm after versus before confronting patronizing help. However, blind individuals were perceived as less warm after the confrontation than those using a wheelchair. 
  • Participants deemed condescending behavior from a nondisabled pedestrian as more appropriate for the individuals who were blind than for those who used a wheelchair. 
  • For both studies, gender was not found to have an impact on the perceived warmth of individuals with a disability, neither before nor after confronting patronizing help.  
  • There was no penalization on the perceived competence of individuals with a disability after confronting patronizing help. 

Study 1

Participants were presented with background information about a 22-year-old blind man or woman (called Matt or Mary), who was portrayed as a competent working adult and a confident cane traveler. 

In an initial assessment, participants had to indicate their perceptions of this individual with respect to both warmth and competence. Then, they were asked to read a hypothetical scenario where the blind individual asked for directions from a sighted person, who answered in a patronizing way and was then confronted by the blind individual. After reading the situation, participants were once again asked to indicate their perceptions of the blind person, and they also had to indicate whether the sighted person’s behavior was appropriate. 

For study 1, the authors recruited 169 undergraduate students from a university located in the Midwestern United States, who participated in exchange for course credit. From this initial pool, 32 participants were excluded because they failed an attention check to correctly identify that Matt or Mary were blind, and what their request was. The final sample included 137 participants (88 female, 48 male, 1 other) between the ages of 18 and 43 years. 

Study 2

As in study 1, participants were first presented with background information on a man or woman (called Matt or Mary) with a visible disability, who was portrayed as blind or using a wheelchair, and they were asked to evaluate the disabled individual in terms of warmth and competence. 

Next, they were given a hypothetical scenario to read, where the individual with a disability was waiting to cross the street and received completely unsolicited, patronizing help from a nondisabled pedestrian. Participants were then required to indicate the perceived warmth and competence of the disabled target, and to what extent they considered the nondisabled pedestrian’s behavior as appropriate. 

For study 2, the research team recruited 455 U.S. residents from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, who were paid $1.00 for participating in the 10-minute study. From the initial pool, 87 participants failed to identify Matt or Mary’s disability and why they were waiting to cross the street. 

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