Giving hope a new dimension

  • Published
  • By Amy Gillentine
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Research
Two professors at the United States Air Force Academy have shown that respect for people who are different can be taught - and it isn't that hard.

Drs. Lauren Scharff and Michelle Butler have worked for many years to help cadets change pre-conceived notions of people with disabilities and, although they anecdotally believed good things were happening in their classes, they had not systematically tried to measure the impact of their course experiences.

"Believe it or not, there wasn't anything in the literature about how to develop and measure changes in respect for human dignity within the academic environment," Scharff said. "We'd been working on these ideas in our classes and a few years ago, we decided to create new ways to quantitatively measure the impact. We found that what we're doing does change attitudes and behavioral tendencies."

The key, the two professors say, is personal contact and experience.

Scharff is the director of the Academy's Center for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, and teaches in the Behavioral Science Department; Butler is an associate professor of Psychology in the department. Scharff takes students to the lab and has them "try-on" a disability - creating temporary blindness, deafness or the inability to walk. The lab work, she said, creates empathy for people with disabilities.

"We took other cadets on field trips," Butler said. "Some interact with people at the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind. Others go to a rehabilitation hospital in Denver to work with, and talk to, people with brain injuries. We planned very deliberate interactions on the field trips. And they came away, not only learning empathy, but also demonstrating hope and more comfort about interactions with these groups of others."

"Hope was a new dimension not at all addressed in the literature," Scharff added. "It's not just that they learned how difficult life can be for people with disabilities - they learned that people are overcoming those difficulties. It gave them hope that people can become meaningfully engaged and contributors to society. It made a difference in their thoughts; made them realize people are basically the same."

They recorded preconceived stereotypes and anxieties about interacting with people with disabilities before the field trips. Their questionnaires asked about cadet attitudes toward people who are disabled and their accomplishments.

"After the course experiences, we recorded their thoughts again," Scharff said. "They also have to write pre- and post-reflection papers about the experiences. These papers aren't graded on 'right versus wrong' types of answers, so that cadets could feel able to openly share their thoughts. We qualitatively analyzed their responses to look for themes."

That personal contact - the conversations, the interactions with the different "others" - is what made the most difference across the multiple components of respect for human dignity.

"Once they met and interacted with the 'others,' the people who are different, their attitudes changed," Butler said. "All those stereotypes fell away. We believe that this will also be the case with different groups of 'others' - people who are of different cultures or religion. We would like to share what we've done so that other instructors can incorporate similar types of experiences and measures, and we can impact more cadets."

This type of experience is essential for future leaders of the Air Force, who will travel around the world and work with all kinds of different people, she said.

"We can show that positive interactions - that's the key piece - can change attitudes and likely behaviors," she said. "That is vastly important for the Air Force."