by Toby Olson
From the Editor: Toby Olson is the executive secretary of the Washington state Governor's Committee on Disability Issues and Employment, where he also directed the Northwest Disability and Business Technical Assistance Center. He is the chair of the National Fire Protection Association Disability Access Review Advisory Committee and was the chair of the International Code Council Disability Advisory Committee and vice chair of the American Public Transportation Association Access Standard Oversight Committee. He has a neurological disorder that limits his ability to interpret visual and auditory information. Here’s his concern about what people take away from quick disability simulation exercises:
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month and Disability History Month here in Washington state. Disability awareness events held in October often include disability simulation exercises in which participants who don't have a disability will spend some time using a wheelchair or wearing a blindfold. More sophisticated exercises might also include headphones with white noise generators to simulate a hearing loss or boxes in which participants can attempt to perform tasks while watching their hands reflected by a series of mirrors to provide a sense of the effects of a specific learning disability.
While these exercises are popular and can help the participants to become more aware of some of the environmental barriers people with disabilities encounter, many people with disabilities and disability organizations are concerned that they create an inaccurate perception of the experience of living with a disability. The fear is that simulations actually reinforce the inaccurate negative stereotypes that often limit opportunities for people with disabilities in education and employment.
If you participate in a simulation, what you experience will not be at all like a slice from the life of a person who has lived with that disability for any time. The difference will not be because you'll know that you'll be taking off the blindfold or walking away from the wheelchair at the end. The difference will be because, without any of the coping skills and techniques people with disabilities create and master throughout their lives, the best you will be able to manage will be to emulate the experience of being the single most hapless, incompetent individual with that particular disability on the face of the planet.
Participants in disability simulations experience their adopted disabilities as a series of discoveries of things they can't do. They can leave the exercise imagining an unbroken string of those discoveries stretching out for a lifetime. Those of us who have had a disability all our lives haven't experienced our disabilities that way. For those who have acquired a disability, that experience is usually a relatively brief transition phase. The long-term experience of living with a disability is more aptly characterized as adapting, adjusting, and developing new ways to do things when the usual ways don't work. It is more commonly the active pursuit of an expanding life, not mourning for a contracting one.
I have heard simulations compared to putting on blackface, but disability simulations have nothing to do with the contempt and ridicule that were the essence of the minstrel shows. Most people in the disability community appreciate that simulations represent a sincere interest in improving understanding and a willingness to put time and effort toward that goal. Still we cannot help being concerned that participants who leave a simulation, imagining life with a disability as an endlessly shrinking spiral of frustration and loss, might be even less comfortable associating with people who have disabilities than they were before. Those who take away from the exercise frustration at the inability to complete simple daily activities could, as a result, be less able to recognize the substantive contributions a job applicant with a disability is ready to make to their organization's bottom line.
If there is one thing about the experience of disability that everyone needs to understand, it is that the chronic unemployment and resulting poverty that are far too common among working-age people with disabilities are not natural consequences of disability. The best exercise for improving awareness on that issue is the one where we all recruit, hire, and work alongside people who have disabilities. That exercise has the added benefit of allowing us to discover what people who have so much experience devising innovative, practical solutions to unusual problems can add to our organizations' strengths.