Dissertations and Theses @ UNI


Open Access Dissertation


People with disabilities--Public opinion; Teenagers--Attitudes;


This study was conducted in order to decipher adolescent interpretations of disability that were portrayed on television. Employing qualitative methodology and methods, I conducted focus groups with adolescents during which they viewed television programs containing portrayals of characters with disabilities, or otherwise defining differences. The sixth grade participants freely shared their perspectives of the programs and characters in addition to their thoughts about the nature of difference in general.

Although I originally intended to interpret adolescents' reactions toward characters with disabilities, I found that it was not only characters with disabilities that they viewed in a judgmental manner. As the study participants discussed the overall nature of difference, they revealed their lack of acceptance not only of people with disabilities, but their lack of acceptance of difference as a whole. Any human difference was deemed unacceptable by my participants.

The participants' reactions to the television programs and “different” characters revealed an ability to quickly identify the positive messages/morals regarding acceptance that were communicated through the conclusions of most episodes, but they almost always failed to see the applications of the episodes' messages/morals to their lives. The judgmental language about normalcy that they used in their discussions revealed a contradiction of acceptance of difference. In addition, both the participants' and the television characters' reactions to difference illuminated a disregard for individuals who had not met (unattainable) societal norms.

As a result, this study highlights the parallel that exists between the intolerance of difference on television and that which exists within the adolescents' daily lived experiences. Portrayals of cruel humor and perpetuations of stereotypes by exploitation of personal difference are exacerbated by network-inserted laugh tracks and interpreted as “funny” by the participants. Interpretation of the adolescents' dialogues necessitates further examination of the nature of difference and disability as portrayed on television programming targeted toward adolescents.

Year of Submission


Degree Name

Doctor of Education


Department of Special Education

First Advisor

Sandra Alper, Committee Chair

Date Original


Object Description

1 PDF file (vi, 181 pages)



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