What is it like to be disabled? Wait, are you allowed to ask that question? What about the question, can I use your wheelchair to see what’s it like? Is that appropriate?
There are some schools, including universities that conduct disability simulations, in an effort to educate non-disabled people on what it is like to live with a disability. The notions are well-founded, especially since some of the simulations are conducted during disability awareness week or month. The problem is that the simulations don’t actually have the intended consequences as what was hoped.
Disability simulation studies have been conducted for years; yet, as a person of color, I can understand the notion that they can be akin to a white person wearing a “black face” in order to understand the black experience. There are so many things wrong with this, aside from the historical meaning of painted black faces from the early 20th century. It’s a bit condescending to think one can encapsulate a lifetime of experience into a 5-minute or even week-long wheelchair usage. There are many things that make up who we are as people. We all have trials and tribulations. We have people and experiences that make us happy, sad, and mad. Whether that experience can be summarized as experiences living as a member of a minority group – racial, gender, sexual, or ability or that experience can be summarized as living within the majority group, your experiences are what make you who you are – all of them, not just the good ones or the ones that can be excised out like the editing for a reality TV show.
As such, it was understandable to talk with my guest on the Disability News Report about her disability simulation study at Hiram College in Ohio and learn that her reason for wanting to conduct the study was to have proof of its ineffectiveness. She had long wanted to end the simulations at the College; however, she received some pushback on the theory that they were beneficial in helping college students better understand and possibly empathize with people with disabilities. Some of the simulations included offering foggy goggles to simulate a visual impairment or offering a wheelchair to simulate using a wheelchair on campus. The result was not what was expected, and the real downside to the simulations was that they didn’t encapsulate the maturity and evolution a person undergoes as they learn to accept who they are with a disability. Growing into who you are is a learning process we all must accomplish, regardless of whether you are a minority, and growth can’t be achieved through a simulation. It is achieved through life and circumstance.
As you watch the interview, consider whether you would want someone to attempt to walk a day or two in your shoes and then make a judgment about your overall quality of life. If the sound of that turns you off, you now have a sneak peek inside some of the effects of disability simulations.
– Jennifer O. Price