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.