Effects of an Instructor's Wheelchair Use on Communicating Concepts to College Students

Article excerpt

Within the broad fields of physical education, fitness, and recreation, ability for a teacher to communicate effectively with students is essential. Information being conveyed is not only for verbal or written regurgitation, but exists so individuals can learn to exercise and move safely, and, be motivated to adopt healthy lifetime habits, such as regular participation in physical activity to increase quality of life and decrease mortality. One factor that can impact quality of communication is perceptions students (or clients) have about the leader. How a teacher is perceived can impact how much is learned, and potential for positive changes resulting from what was taught. When someone is physically observed, perceptions might be impacted by stereotypes based on appearance.

Stereotypes have been defined as structured sets of beliefs about personal attributes of a group of people (Ashmore & Del Boca, 1979). They may also be considered to be expectancies about extent to which a group's probable behaviors can be generalized from the group to individuals within the group (Moskowitz, 2005). These cognitive structures are linked to our attitudes about groups of people. Research had established existence of stereotypes for numerous groups (e.g., women, elderly), including individuals with physical disabilities (Jelenec & Steffens, 2002). Some stereotypes associated with individuals with physical disabilities include: they are sad, dependent, emotionally unstable, and isolated (Altman, 1981). These stereotypes are linked with negative attitudes toward employing persons who are physically disabled (Kennedy & Olney, 2001). In general, individuals with disabilities are employed at a rate far less than non-disabled individuals (LaPlante, Kennedy, Kage, & Wenger, 1986; National Organization on Disability, 2004), despite the fact that the majority of individuals with disabilities would prefer to work (NOD, 2004). More than half of citizens questioned admitted they feel embarrassed, and nearly half are fearful around people with disabilities (Wolfe, 1996).

A limited body of research investigated how pre-service physical educators view students with disabilities in physical education settings. Folsom-Meek and Nearing (1995a, 1995b), and Folsom-Meek, Nearing, and Krampf (1995) reported physical educators with appropriate preparation tended to increase favorable attitudes toward students with disabilities. In terms of academic preparation of adapted physical educators, these findings are more positive, and indicated training can help alleviate negative attitudes associated with stereotypes of individuals with disabilities.

Little research has been conducted on teaching effectiveness of fitness instructors or physical educators who are wheelchair users. This protocol was inspired by similar work by Melville and colleagues (Melville & Cardinal, 1988; Melville & Maddalozzo, 1988), who showed high school students two videos depicting an instructor who was fat and one who was fit making the same presentation on the health-related component of flexibility. Their findings supported importance of stereotypes based on physical appearance in physical education; students who viewed the overweight instructor made more errors on a knowledge test following the video. They also disliked the overweight instructor, viewed him as less knowledgeable, stated he was a person who did not practice what he preached, and was not a good role model. They even planned to make an effort to improve their fitness levels less than those who viewed the fit instructor.

Likewise, relatively little research had been conducted on stereotypes concerning wheelchair users. However, Furnham and Thompson (1994) found that although perceivers had generally positive stereotypes about and attitudes toward users of wheelchairs, they believed that non disabled individuals still experienced awkwardness when actually associating with wheelchair users, and that they might even tend to avoid them. …