The Transcontinental Disability Choir: Simulate This!

I have this personal theory that I’d like people to consider: Spending 30 minutes trying to eat in a pitch-black room doesn’t really tell you much about being blind. It just tells you how difficult it is to eat a meal in the dark.

This seems to be a pretty controversial thing to say, since “disability simulations” like the one the Washington Post wrote about are seen as a “good” way for the able-bodied to learn about the “challenges” that people with disabilities face every day. The theory seems to be that able-bodied folks (like me!) can learn what it’s like to be blind by being blindfolded and led around for a couple of hours, what it’s like to be deaf by having earplugs for the afternoon, and what it’s like to be a full-time wheelchair user by using a wheelchair for three hours a day for a week. Apparently disability simulations have also included things like putting socks over someone’s hands and having them try and tie their shoes.

Strangely enough, spending a couple of hours in an unfamiliar situation is pretty darn difficult! Gosh, those disabled people who live like this every day must have a really really really hard time of it. Gosh, I hope I don’t end up crippled like them - my life would be so hard! (That was my sarcasm tone.)

I see disability simulations like this often enough in t.v. shows that have that Very Special Message About Disability. They’ll obsenstibly be about their Disabled Character, but what they’ll really be about is how difficult it is for an able-bodied person to cope with the sort of situation that someone with a disability finds pretty darn normal, and the Very Special Lesson will be how Very Brave the people with disabilities are to live like that all the time. It’s the same lesson that we’re supposed to get from a disability simulation in real life.

You know what these things tell us able-bodied folks? Nothing. At best, they may tell us how, if we were suddenly injured and given no chance for rehabilitation, physical therapy, or support, we’d have a hard time of it. (Perhaps health care funding should include more time and money towards such things.)

When my husband got his sexy sexy electric wheelchair of awesome, it took him a couple of weeks to learn how to use it and not run into walls and doors, not because he’s such a terrible driver but because it was getting used to a new experience - and part of getting the chair for him included a couple of hours of training on how to use it. Of course spending a few hours in a wheelchair without any training is going to be difficult, and of course someone is going to end up with sore muscles from doing the unfamiliar exercise of trying to get around using mostly arm movement. The chair probably isn’t going to fit properly either, so of course muscles are going to be stiff.

I suspect that most people doing disability simulations have their hearts in the right places, but I’m not sure what their actual goals are. My goals of a “Disability Awareness Day” would be to make disability (in general - not just physical disabilities, but intellectual disability and mental health conditions as well) a bit less frightening for the currently non-disabled, and to bring awareness on ways that the currently non-disabled can work with people with disabilities to make things a bit more accessible for them.

My suggestions would also be appropriate, I think, for people who wanted to write a character with a disability for some fictional work. I’m just saying.

In the classroom, bring in guest speakers who have disabilities and ask them to talk about their lives and lived experiences. There are disability activists who are happy to do this, and my first experiences learning about Guide Dogs for the Blind was a guest speaker at my library who brought in her Guide Dog. [Rule #1: Don’t talk to a working service animal, something I think everyone should learn.]

Read books written by people with disabilities about their experiences with disability. There are a lot of these books, varying from No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement, by Shapiro to Eyes of Desire: A Deaf Gay & Lesbian Reader, edited by Luczak. (I recommend searching for books under “disability studies”.)

Check out the disability blogosphere. Diary of a Goldfish has been hosting Blog Against Disablism Day since 2006, which is a good resource for a whole host of different points of view and experiences of disability, ablism, discrimination, and awesomeness. (Life with a disability: not actually a tragedy.)

The only use I can think of for an actual disability simulation would be making it perfectly clear why people with disabilities ask for certain things to be done. Quite frankly, I’d love to stick someone from City Council in a wheelchair for an afternoon and push them around my neighbourhood. I’d like to think the curb cuts would be fixed, the sidewalks replaced, and the snow cleared faster. I mean, if they’re not going to believe us when we talk about it, maybe they’d believe their own experience of being almost tipped out of a chair because of how nasty the curb cut is.

But I guess that’s really my point: if one trusts people with disabilities to talk about their own experiences, there isn’t a reason for a Very Special Disability Simulation in order to learn what is needed, or what it would be like if one had to spend six weeks, six months, six years, or six decades using arm crutches or being blind or deaf.

Disability Awareness should be about the actual experiences of people with disabilities, not about how currently able-bodied people feel about it.

by Anna Pearce
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9 Comments Have Been Posted

Simulate This!

Love! Haaaaate simulations.

The voices of people with

The voices of people with different abilities need to be heard... and these voices imply the presence of listeners.

If we have voices and people listening, then perhaps we can take it further and make it a dialogue. I agree that the experiences of differently abled people should be the focus of disability awareness. However, the way in which able-bodied people feel about disability is also important. An ideal community is one in which people of all abilities try to understand the lives and experiences of one another.

Some of these methods, such as eating a meal in the dark, may seem to trivialize the experiences of blind or vision impaired people. However, as I'm sure you're aware, everyone has different learning styles. Some may benefit from hearing someone speak, some process ideas and feelings better in written form, others are kinaesthetic learners, and may need an exercise like that in order to develop awareness.

But develop an awareness

But develop an awareness about <em>what</em>? That it's difficult to eat in the dark? Blind people aren't eating in the dark, though. They're blind. It's not remotely the same thing.

Of course it's not the same

Of course it's not the same thing. The same thing would be impossible to simulate. Yes, it may seem terribly obvious to some people that it's difficult to eat in the dark. However, doing so may allow the individual to reflect on how much they rely upon their senses and consider the possibility of doing without.... yes, some people don't actually think about these things. They need a tangible experience to unblock their sighted-centric minds. Scope for the imagination, if you will, and in no way to be considered a convenient solution to anything.

the key is "impossible to simulate"

If you set up a brief, temporary "simulation" as an event that is supposed to help people understand what it is like to have a particular disability, they will come away from the event believing that their experience reflects the reality, even when it doesn't. That belief, in turn, may make it more difficult for them to realize why they need to listen to the voices of disabled people. A little bit of learning is a dangerous thing.

Of course simulations will

Of course simulations will never work because people with sight already know what it's like to see. I don't know why people don't get this. It's like imagining if you were of the opposite sex or gender or of a different race. Our perception is already what we know. It only seems difficult to people with sight because that's the opposite of what they know. We'll never know what it's like to not be able to see, unless we physically lose our sight.

These situations remind me of those tv shows when black families put on whiteface and white families put on blackface and try to understand what it's like to be the opposite race, and they never work, because of their mindset (and it's a stupid experiment to begin with). Their minds are still black or white, despite physical appearance being the opposite. likewise, able-bodied people's mindsets are still that they are able-bodied, and it's just a physical difference, not a mental one.

For Those Who Learn By Watching

There's an excellent "simulation" of learning disability on DVD, aimed at dubious teachers. The instructor manages to reduce a class full of chatty teachers into self-doubting, silent, cringers in less than an hour. He sets them tasks that seem simple, but are just outside their capability, and then hectors them the entire time.

It's an exquisite demonstration of how teachers can transform (or prevent) learning differences into impairments:
<a href=" Lavoie's F.A.T. City: How Hard Can This Be</a> is twenty years old, but it's still a winner.


I totally agree with everything you're saying about the simulations, but i have one point i must digress on.
I love animals more than people, so i will pretty much never, ever, no matter how much hate i get for it, ever not pet the service dog. Ever. Period.

You love animals so much you

You love animals so much you will distract them from their vital, potentially life-saving jobs? That's interesting. I love dogs but that's not an excuse to be a jerk to a blind person. Just sayin'.

I wouldn't really say you're doing the dog any favors, either, so it's selfishness, not love. Sorry.

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