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Simulating disability: what works and what doesn’t?

Reconsider the purpose of disability simulation activities

Reconsider the purpose of disability simulation activities

About empathy, you have probably heard sayings similar to the following,

“You can only see a different perspective if you put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Only then you can learn compassion.”

junger mann im rollstuhl vor einer wand mit zitaten über empathie

Can empathy be learnt through disability simulation activities? (Source: Facebook @empathymuseum)

Disability simulation is one of the most popular activities to promote disability awareness and empathy among the able-bodied. During the simulation, participants have the chance to experience how it is to live with particular disabilities — for a limited time and under the artificial disability conditions. A classic simulation example is when able-bodied people use a wheelchair in order to discover how difficult it is to move around and get access.

Disability simulation is no doubt an activity with good intention. However, the outcomes can vary depending on how it is run.

Missing the big picture of disability

Disability simulations are highly controversial among disability communities because they often miss the big picture of disability. First, disability is complex and its conditions are diverse. It is impossible to simulate all kinds of disability. Simulations alone can hardly present the whole truth of disability.

Second, everyone’s experience of disability is unique. The experience depends not only from disability conditions and associated secondary conditions. It is also influenced by one’s attitude, the living environment and support received.

sichtbare und unsichtbare behinderungen

It is impossible to simulate all kinds of disability. The personal experience of people with disabilities also vary greatly depending on how they adapt to their conditions, and what support they receive. (Source: Facebook @islandcrisiscaresociety)

The common problem of disability simulations is that participants have very limited time, from a few hours to a day, and rarely on a regular basis, to experience lives with their temporary disability conditions. What people experience in a disability simulation is therefore closer to the initial hardship of becoming disabled rather than the successful adjustment processes. On the other hand, these participants know that they can get back to their “normal” state again, so they would always miss the definite feeling of the disability condition.

Promoting stereotypes rather than empathy

There were studies investigating the effects of disability simulation and empathy activities on participants, and the results vary. A study showed that nursing students’ attitudes towards people with disabilities had improved after the disability empathy activity. Another study found that trainee teachers who participated in disability empathy activity were more likely to be empathetic to and advocate for students with disabilities in future.

However, a study published in 2017 pointed out the unintended negative consequences of disability simulations. For this study, 60 undergraduates were randomly assigned to disability-awareness simulations for either dyslexia, hearing or mobility impairments. All participants were asked about their mood, their ideas and attitudes towards disability before and after the simulation.

Results showed that disability simulations made participants feel more negative and vulnerable to becoming disabled themselves. Those who used wheelchairs or simulated dyslexia during the experiment felt particularly more anxious, embarrassed and helpless after the simulations.

Although participants became more empathetic towards people with disabilities, they tended to agree with statements like “I am grateful that I don’t have such a burden (of disability)” and “I dread the thought that I could someday end up like them (people with disabilities)”. Participants also felt less comfortable interacting with people with disabilities in future.

prinz william mit augenbinde beim bogenschiessen

Prince William at a blindness simulation activity: Disability simulation activities involving renowned people can generate much publicity. Nonetheless, it could also backfire and evoke pity instead of ending stereotypes towards people with disabilities. (Source: BBC News)

Simulations with targeted guidance

The negative consequences reported in the above study are the reasons why simulation activities are not highly recommended by disability activists. Dr. Arielle Silverman explains disability simulation activities further.

Being blind since birth, Arielle achieved her doctorate degree in social psychology in 2014. Having studied approaches to educating the public about disabilities, she conducts disability research and offers training services to promote accurate understanding of disability and positive adjustment to it.

Arielle is not against disability simulation activities. However, she points out, one critical element many conventional simulations skip are coping techniques. Her research suggests that this magnifies participants’ fear and distress, fostering misconceptions about disabilities. For a simulation to create positive results, participants should be introduced to particular techniques which help them to cope with their simulated disability challenges. They should learn that being disabled does not equal being powerless.

In 2017, Arielle published a research where she designed a simulation activity for occupational and physical therapy students. The students experienced the transfer from a chair to a manual wheelchair and wheeling across the room on their own. They were also asked to make a sandwich using their non-dominant hand and a variety of assistive aids. The activity was deliberately set up in a way that students could complete the tasks without big difficulties, providing them instructions about coping techniques.

The result: after the simulation, students thought more often that people with disabilities see themselves as happy and healthy. The experience with the effective techniques also made them feel more positive towards life with a disability.

Other ways to promote disability awareness

In another article, disability campaigner and activist Zara Todd suggests some alternatives that could work better than disability simulations. For example, she recommends case studies of people with disabilities as better ways to learn about their lives, limitations and inequalities they face. She mentions that non-profit organizations such as the European Network on Independent Living tell real stories of people with disabilities in a human rights-based perspective.

On their YouTube channel, you can find testimonial videos like the following. It is made by people from Handi-Social, a disability organization in France. People talk about the accessibility challenges they face every day. They also reveal the injustice they encounter while fighting for their human rights.

There are also powerful videos like the following which can gain much attention via social media, inspire thoughts and discussions on disability around the world:

Of course, whenever possible, socialization in person would still be the best way to learn about disabilities. Incorrect or negative assumptions about people with disabilities stem from lack of communication and social interaction. Making societies more inclusive would be more effective and sensible than any disability simulation, which only offers temporary and unrealistic opportunities for people to learn about disabilities. Inclusion is also a human right which we should keep fighting for, as pointed out by the United Nations,

“Inclusive societies recognize and build development policies around the diversity of their members and enable everyone’s full inclusion and participation, regardless of their status.”

What is your experience with disability simulation activities? What is the best way to promote awareness and empathy towards people with disabilities?

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