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Do Disability Simulation Experiences Work?

Updated on May 9, 2017
Carola Finch profile image

Carola writes extensively on health, social issues, mental illness, disabilities, and other topics. She is a breast cancer survivor.

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Some organizations offer people an experience that is supposed to simulate what is like to live with a disability. The simulations, also known as empathetic modeling or disability awareness days, are intended to promote an understanding of how disabled people live and improve attitudes toward disability.

Some examples are:

  • Requiring participants to wear blindfolds or goggles so that they can experience blindness
  • Wearing a sling to simulate limb difference
  • Wearing earplugs to comprehend what it is like to be deaf
  • Maneuvering a wheelchair indoors or outdoors as a person with a spinal cord injury
  • Accessing an app or software that mimics the disability experience

The Controversy Regarding Disability Simulations

As an advocate and writer who focuses on disability issues, I have to question the whether these simulations really do promote awareness and reduce the stigma associated with disability.

On the one hand, research from the University of Kansas claimed that people had more positive attitudes towards people with disabilities after simulating their conditions. The study participants were music students, half of whom mimicked having a one-arm amputation, a lower limb paralysis that requires a wheelchair, or the loss of hearing or vision. The other half acted as their aides. Students said that after interacting with the "disabled" in a public place, they felt more empathy and were more knowledgeable about the disabled.

The concept that it is beneficial to have able-bodied people briefly experience life with a disability through simulations has been disputed by some researchers and disability advocates. A study by Hiram College has revealed that these types of simulations can do more harm than good. The able-bodied participants often felt apprehension, fear, and pity for disabled people.

Disabled writer Wendy Lu said in an article in Bustle that while she appreciates efforts to understand people with disabilities, she says that these activities can backfire.

Reasons Why Mimicking Disabilities May Not Work

Focuses on the trauma of losing a sense instead of the realities

According to the Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research, these exercises focus on the initial trauma of losing a sense such as vision rather than the realities of living with vision loss. A sudden loss of a sense can be frightening to participants and is more likely to create pity rather than empathy for disabled people.

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Mimicking Disability Does Not Take Unique Coping Skills into Account

Simulations only duplicate the experience of suddenly losing a sense such as sight or sound, the ability to walk, or losing the use of a limb during a short period of time. Some people do become disabled this way, such as sustaining a spinal cord injury in a car accident.

Most people with disabilities, however, were either born with their conditions or have conditions that degenerate over time such as ALS or multiple sclerosis. Whatever their situation, they have had time to adapt and learn coping skills. Some benefit from using service dogs.

The human body has some amazing ways to compensate for disabilities. A study by the Massachusetts Eye and Ear, for example, discovered that the brains of blind people actually rewire themselves in order to enhance the other senses. Numerous studies have shown that deaf people have more advanced vision than hearing people – especially peripheral vision. People with limb differences such as amputees can compensate missing limbs by using other parts of their body. A person without arms will adapt by using their feet or mouths for everyday tasks or activities such as painting pictures.

Participants in brief simulations may underestimate the real capabilities of people with disabilities.

Focuses on the trauma of losing a sense instead of the realities of disability

According to the Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research, these exercises focus on the initial trauma of losing a sense such as vision rather than the realities of living with vision loss. A sudden loss of a sense can be frightening to participants and is more likely to create pity rather than empathy for disabled people.

These exercises may not acknowledge the roles of personal support workers

Some simulations may give the impression that disabled people are left to struggle on their own to do daily living tasks such as dressing and eating. They also do not seem to include education on how personal support workers help people with physical disabilities to live their lives out in the community instead of in an institution. I worked as a personal support worker myself for a number of years with physically disabled people. I assisted with tasks such as dressing, toileting, cooking, and washing dishes, enabling the residents to live independently in their own apartments.

In other areas of disability, there are many types of assistance available such as sign language interpreters for the deaf or service dogs.

The exercise cannot accurately duplicate the disability experience

Many conditions are highly complex and unique to each person. It is not possible to duplicate all of these factors.

Disabled people also face many issues such as discrimination, condescension, and pity. They face many challenges that cannot be duplicated. For example, a person in a wheelchair is in a public place with a personal care assistant. Someone will start to talk the assistant and ignore the disabled person. They may even talk about the person in the wheelchair in their presence or ask the attendant questions about them, referring to them in the third person. Children with physical or mental challenges may be bullied at school.

deaf person using a video relay service
deaf person using a video relay service | Source

These exercises does not take into account extensive training and assistive technology

Some people with disabilities receive training in the special life skills they need for everyday living. Some organizations that serve people with vision loss, for example, have training programs for people who are losing their sight where they are taught how to navigate the world. They may learn braille.

Others may be able to use assistive devices and technology to manage their world. A person in a wheelchair, for example, may use a special device that can grasp food items off a high shelf.

Do you think that disability simulations work?

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Alternatives to disability simulations

Meet disabled people: One of the most effective ways to understand disabled people is to talk with them directly and get to know them. I had the privilege of being a volunteer interpreter for a deaf woman. We went to different elementary schools and this warm and friendly woman communicated in sign language about her unique life experiences to the students.

I interpreted the signs into spoken language for her. The kids were always full of questions and wanted to learn sign language. After the interaction, the students had a greater understanding of the deaf experience as well as deaf culture, and sign language.

Education about disabilities: There are so many publications and resources on the Internet. Many disabled people share their life experiences on YouTube.

Concluding thoughts

Emily Landeau, a disabled person, raised this question: if disability simulations really worked, why aren’t they making a significant change in ending barriers such as stigma and accessibility? The answer for that question is still a matter of debate.

© 2017 Carola Finch

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