Forget the ‘Spoiled’ Stereotype: Study Finds Millennials Most Welcoming of Intellectual Disabilities

Personal relationships in younger generations are leading to greater acceptance.

(Photo: Kent Nishimura/Getty Images)

Jul 24, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

More than 6,000 athletes from around the world are gearing up for their moment in the spotlight at the 2015 Special Olympic Games in Los Angeles. With an expected 500,000 spectators and an ESPN broadcast reaching 170 countries, millions will cheer for the contestants. But a new report reveals that an alarming number of Americans do not understand the participants.

Those competing have intellectual disabilities, which are defined as significant limitations in intellectual and adaptive development. They often correspond with—but are not limited to—disorders like Down syndrome, autism, and fetal alcohol syndrome.

A survey released Friday by Shriver Media and Special Olympics International found that 44 percent of the roughly 2,000 adults questioned were either unfamiliar with intellectual disabilities or hadn’t heard of the term.

An estimated 3 million to 9 million people in the U.S. have an intellectual disability, according to the report’s figures, but only 56 percent of those polled say they know someone who has one. The low percentages of respondents who have a friend with an intellectual disability (13 percent) or work with someone who has one (5 percent) indicate that many people with such disabilities live isolated from the rest of society.

Despite the relatively low visibility, these numbers will likely rise. Millennials—adults between 18 and 34—were more likely to know someone with an intellectual disability. Personal relationships translated to greater understanding: Those who knew someone with an intellectual disability were twice as likely to be informed and compassionate. Young millennial women were found to be the most offended by use of the term “retarded” and the most likely to be open to their future child dating or marrying a person with an intellectual disability.

The report also revealed persistent negative views—22 percent of the polling community reported that those with an intellectual disability should not be allowed to vote, and 44 percent believed that such a disability should not alter sentencing in capital offenses. Yet Maria Shriver, Special Olympics board member and daughter of the Special Olympics founder, was hopeful for the future.

“As a mother and activist, I am deeply encouraged that young people, especially young women, are paving the way to a more conscious, caring, and compassionate society,” she said. “The open-minded attitudes of this generation who grew up in classrooms and playing sports with people with ID makes an undeniable case for inclusion.”

Participant Media is a sponsor of the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles.

(Infographic: Courtesy