Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Faculty of Education


This thesis examined the attitudes of regular students in Singapore towards peers with physical and sensory disabilities who were integrated into the mainstream classroom. The concept of integration impacting on the attitudinal development in this study is based on the socio-cultural perspectives of child development (Bronfenbrenner, 1989; Vygotsky, 1993) and the discourse of contact experience (Allport, 1954; Zajonc, 2001). Child development theorists advocate that children’s learning requires support structures such as informed adults to guide learning and that development is intricately intertwined with the socio-cultural contexts. Alternatively, contact theory suggests that the contact experience has an inherent positive impact on attitudes and behaviour.

The 397 participants were grade 4 and grade 5 students from integrated and regular classes in integrated and regular schools in Singapore. Qualitative and quantitative methodologies were used to assess the attitudes of regular students in both integrated and regular classes towards people with disabilities. The participants completed a researcher-designed questionnaire, took part in focus group interviews and were observed in class. The integrated class teachers were also interviewed.

This study supported the conclusion that an integrated learning environment had a significant impact on regular students’ attitudes towards people with disabilities. In the quantitative study, regular students in integrated classrooms were found to have negative attitudes towards peers who had a disability. On the other hand, students in regular classes were found to be generally more able to appreciate the strengths of people with disabilities. The findings challenged the ‘contact model’ that states that contacts with people with disabilities influence children’s attitudes in a positive way.

The qualitative study highlighted the importance of the socio-cultural context and the quality of the contact experience in students’ attitudes towards people with disabilities. It was found that contact which was supported by specific school and classroom programs at school and class level was associated with positive attitudes of regular students towards peers with disabilities. Such support programs promoted inclusive ideals, positive differentiation and provided opportunities for meaningful experiences. The study affirmed the significant role of the teacher in facilitating the positive contact experience. The integrated class with the teacher, who modelled positive communication that promoted acceptance and positive perception, was found to have more positive attitudes. The teachers in the integrated classes, where students’ attitudes towards people with disabilities were found to be negative, were lacking in knowledge of special education and needed guidelines to intervene with their special needs students. This suggests that appropriately informed teaching practice that encourages social interaction among students could help reduce misunderstanding and stereotyping of people with disabilities.

The social-cultural contexts at a broader level were also examined in this research. It was found that societal aspirations for academic excellence had an impact on students. The students in this study displayed signs of being anxious over their academic performance being affected by the presence of peers with disabilities. Regular students perceived integration as acceptable only if it was not at the expense of their academic performance.

The findings of this study have significant implications for the future of integration in Singaporean schools and understanding the impact of integration on regular students. The study affirmed that positive integrated learning experiences articulated through supportive school cultures, effective classroom practice and enlightened teachers could affect regular students’ attitudes towards people with disabilities in a positive way. However, an achievement-focused culture can impact on students’ acceptance of people with disabilities. Achievement pressure experienced by regular students is entwined with societal values and this can challenge the potential outcomes of integration programs in the Singaporean context.

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Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.