OBJECTIVE To examine the attitudes of a rural community in southern India toward its disabled members. DESIGN Prospective cross-sectional study. METHOD One hundred and twenty randomly selected villagers around the town of Vellore in southern India were invited to take part in the study. The attitudes towards individuals with physical disabilities were examined using a modified version of the Scale of Attitudes Toward Disabled Persons (SADP). The questionnaire was administered in its original English format with simultaneous translation into Tamil. RESULTS Data were complete in 111 cases, 82% of whom showed a positive attitude toward people with disability. Gender and employment status did not appear to have an influence on whether the respondent regarded disabled people in a positive or negative way but most older individuals expressed prejudice and/or challenged the rights of disabled people to equal opportunities in education, employment and social integration. Further data analysis demonstrated that more subjects with than without a disabled family member supported the rights of disabled individuals to education, employment and social integration. By contrast, the items of SADP which described the personal attributes of disabled people did not discriminate between the two groups. CONCLUSION The attitudes of the rural community studied toward people with disabilities were unrelated to the sex or educational status of the respondents but was influenced by their age. This suggests that older subjects in rural communities in developing countries should be the main target for educational programmes which promote positive images of disability.