The Braille Monitor                                                                                               April 1997

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Disability Simulation That Works

by John W. Smith

From the Editor: Dr. John Smith teaches communication studies at the Ohio University in Athens. He is also a leader in the NFB of Ohio. In the following article he offers proof that not all disability simulations are damaging. This is what he says:

For the past three years I've had the pleasure of teaching a very special class at Ohio University entitled, "Communicating with the Physically Disabled." To my knowledge it is the only course of its kind at the university level. That was one of the reasons I decided to develop it. Another reason was that the field of communication has, I believe, been quite reluctant to discuss communication and interaction between those with physical disabilities and those without. In addition I developed the class because I thought it could serve as an opportunity for me to dispel myths about blindness specifically and physical disabilities in general.

The class has received a lot of media coverage. There have been articles in the Columbus Dispatch, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and Chicago Tribune, as well as an NBC television story, which was aired in Dallas, Cleveland, Columbus, and Chicago. In addition to these national and regional stories, the course has been covered by a number of small newspapers (The Athens Messenger, The Athens News, and several radio stations).

I taught the class over a five-week period during the summer quarter. The first week was devoted to laying out a theoretical framework. The next three weeks focused on specific disabilities: week two, blindness and visual impairments; week three, deafness and hearing impairments; and week four, mobility impairments. The final week was devoted to class presentations of student-devised workshops.

As you might expect, I used the blindness and visual impairment week to unfold the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind--blindness can be reduced to the level of a nuisance, and we are changing what it means to be blind. One of the reasons the class received so much media attention was the simulated exercises we used during the course. The media like the bells and whistles and melodramatics of people rolling around in wheelchairs and using sleep shades or ear plugs. I recognized that, when I implemented these simulated exercises, people would tend to focus more on them than on the content of our message, but after much discussion and thought, I decided I could devise a plan to make these simulated exercises useful for both the students and the general public.

Like many other thoughtful blind people, I have had mixed emotions about simulated exercises because they are so often implemented by temporarily able-bodied individuals (TABs) and are designed to be dramatic and entertaining and to convey the wretchedness of a particular disability and the gratitude TABs should feel because they don't have that disability. Factor in the pity that inevitably results, and it's no wonder these exercises leave a bad taste in our mouths. Even given all this, I figured that, in the blindness component at least, I could show my students what an actual blind person's life was like. Through carefully planned course discussions, rigorous journaling, and an exit interview at the end of the course, I thought I could create an atmosphere in which simulation exercises could do some good.

I asked the students to participate in one simulated exercise lasting for one twenty-four-hour period. They chose to be blind for twenty-four hours by wearing sleep shades or hearing-impaired by wearing ear plugs and remaining mute or mobility-impaired by using one of our wheelchairs. For the purpose of our discussion here, I've focused on the visual impairment. No matter which exercise they chose to simulate, they had to submit a journal of their experience as well as participate in an exit interview with me concerning the contents of that journal.

It's easy to distinguish between falsified or dishonest journals and the authentic ones. One in particular struck me as powerful and instructive. I thought it would be interesting to share with our NFB family. Sarah McConnell was a very quiet, reserved student in my 1996 course. She decided to choose blindness as her simulated exercise. I might add here that, in addition to the individual simulated exercises, during the appropriate week I implement collective simulated exercises as well. For example, during the blindness week I pair a student using a sleep shade and cane with a sighted guide and teach the use of proper techniques. Then we go shopping. I send them on errands and we meet back in the classroom to talk about the experience. The first day the discussion focuses on the negative: how tough it was, how much they hated steps, how time-consuming everything was. I leave it at that the first day. The next day I bring in one or two blind friends from the NFB chapter, and we then go buy things and perform the same errands I had asked the students to perform. The idea is to demonstrate what a trained blind person can do using alternative skills.

Back to Sarah: She submitted her journal and I read it. I was impressed by her honesty and creativity and by her willingness to take chances. In my follow-up interview with her I found her genuinely interested in what it would be like to be blind. In short, I left the interview feeling that, if Sarah ever lost her sight, she would be all right. This class gives every indication of continuing to be a success. We are now franchising it to other universities and other organizations, and, though I still have some mixed emotions about simulated exercises, I hope that, when you read Sarah's journal, like me you will begin to see that in the proper context and with the proper implementation and facilitator, these exercises can be useful. Here is Sarah's journal:

Disability Days: Visual Impairment Journal

by Sarah McConnell

I decided to be visually impaired for my second disability day. I have always wondered what it would be like to experience a day without using sight. I think this disability was more authentic than the hearing impairment. Once I put the blindfold on, I could not see anything. I went to bed with the sleepshade on so that I would wake up not able to see. When I woke up, I realized that I had somehow taken it off while I was sleeping, so I quickly shut my eyes before I could really see anything and searched for the blindfold. When I finally found it, I put it back on and went back to sleep.

When I finally woke up, I had no idea what time it was. It seemed as if it was still dark out. I had waked up a couple of times and then fallen back asleep because I didn't know the time, and I didn't hear any noises in the living room. I decided I would get up and see if anyone was in the living room since I heard the TV. I walked out of my room, which goes directly into the living room, and paused. I could hear the TV, but there were no other noises in the room. I finally asked if anyone was there, and two people answered me. One was my housemate Chad, and I still have no idea who the other person was. I asked Chad what time it was. Not knowing what time it was really bothered me. It ended up that I hadn't waked up until 2:00 p.m.

I made my way through the living room, which is hard because it is so narrow that there is very little space between the couch on one side of the room and the chair on the other. I bumped into the chair, and it was no big deal, but I could hear Chad laughing at me. I went into the bathroom and took my shower. I didn't have any problems to speak of. My shampoo and conditioner are in a hanging shower rack in specific places separated by my shower gel, so I knew which was which. I even shaved my legs without any major flesh wounds, at least not that I know about. Brushing my teeth was no problem at all.

I made my way out of the bathroom and back into my room, where I got dressed. I had laid my clothes out before I went to bed, but when I was dressing, I decided I wanted to wear something different, so I searched in my dresser and found what I was looking for. After I got dressed, I went back to the kitchen to get something to eat. I made a salami sandwich, which was quite simple, especially since all of the stuff I needed was in one drawer of the refrigerator.

Chad was watching Miracle on 34th Street, so I sat down and watched the end of it while I ate. I had never seen the movie before, so I didn't really know what it was about. There were quite a few scenes in this movie that were solely visual and really confusing to me. I asked Chad what was going on in one of the confusing parts but just let the others go by. What was interesting was that a few days later I saw the movie when I could see and realized that all the visual cues I noticed changed the meaning of the things the characters said. I had a totally different picture of what was meant when I couldn't see the characters.

My roommate and another friend were supposed to spend the day with me, but one had dance team practice all day, and the other one's parents came into town. So after Chad left, I was all alone in the house. I called my friend, and she was amazed that I could use the phone. That kind of surprised me, because you can easily feel the separations of the numbers on the phone, so it was simple. I had planned on going to Bob Evans's for dinner, but my roommate ended up having extra practice, so yet again I was left alone. I got really depressed when I realized that I was going to be alone until about 9:30 p.m. I was tired of sitting in the house. I was tired of watching TV. I couldn't read, so I was very bored.

There was a knock at my door, and the living room is on the second floor, so I had to work my way down the stairs to answer the door. It wasn't hard at all, but it was kind of scary to open the door and not be able to see who was there.was just my neighbor, who needed me to move my car because it was blocking him in. Needless to say, he had to do it for me. My driveway is impossible to back out of when you can see; I didn't think it would be too good an idea when I couldn't.

When my roommate came home during one of her breaks in practice, I went down to her room, which is on the first floor, to talk to her. She had gotten a huge duffel bag, her pom poms, a warmup jacket, and a couple of new shirts for dance camp; and she tried to explain all these things to me. She did an excellent job of describing. She had me feel the pom poms and bag, and with the jacket and shirts she drew on me how the designs were on them. For example, there was a circle with Ohio University on the front, so she drew a circle on me where it would have been if I had been wearing the shirt.

When she left, I decided to make something to eat. I had opened a can of nacho cheese the night before for nachos and decided that I wanted to finish it. The trick was that I had to figure out where I had put it in the refrigerator. I knew it was in a bowl close to the front with aluminum foil on it. I had to taste it in order to find it. It took me two tries; the first thing I tasted was refried beans. I was just glad that I didn't stumble on the three-week-old tuna fish that I knew was in there somewhere. The hardest part was using the microwave. Unlike the phone, the microwave's buttons were not sectioned off. It was just a flat surface, and I couldn't feel where the numbers were. Moreover, with our microwave you have to press the time set button, the amount of time, and then the start button. I could find everything but the time set button. I ended up getting it to heat long enough to make it lukewarm, so I ate nachos and watched TV.

When my roommate finally came home, she brought two of the girls that were on the dance team with her so that they could use our shower. I had never met them before, so I had no idea what they looked like. I only got to know them by their voices. They wanted me to go to practice the next day to see if I could tell what they looked like just by having heard their voices. I didn't go to practice the next day, but they did come back over, and I got to see what they looked like. It was an interesting experience to meet people and judge them by their voices and what they said instead of by their looks. They did look different than I had pictured, but it wasn't too much different than I thought.

My other friend had come over; and, when the dance team girls left, we decided to go uptown. My roommate Sheila was my sighted guide. We walked uptown from Mill Street. I really wish I could have seen the reactions we got, but according to Sheila and Andrea (my other friend), we got a lot of stares. They decided to take me down Court Street before we went into any bars. One drunk boy reached out and touched my blindfold as we passed him on the street. Quite a few people made dumb comments as they passed us. I realize just how awful the sidewalks in Athens are; they were pretty scary in some places.

After we went for a stroll, we went into Tony's. It was a little difficult because there are three steps to go up, but I did fine. According to my friends, we got lots of strange looks at Tony's. We stayed for a little while and decided to go to the bakery for some pizza. When we rounded the corner from Tony's back to Court Street, this very strange boy came right up to me and started talking to me and asking me questions about what I was doing. He got way too close to me; his face was less than an inch from my face. I even think his nose touched me. I did not like that. It seemed like a few people got closer to me than they would have if I could have seen them. When we got to the bakery, the OU cheerleaders were there. Sheila is friends with all of them, and I know a couple of them. They had a great time with the fact that I couldn't see them. There was some sort of picture of me taken, and from what I've heard, I don't think I want to see what they were doing around me.

I got my pizza, and we got a table and ate. Sheila and Andrea were amazed at how well I had adapted to not being able to see, but really it wasn't that bad. The only things that really bothered me were things that could be adapted if I really couldn't see: like getting a talking clock, making the microwave so I could feel the numbers, and getting used to walking around by myself. I think driving would be the hardest thing not to be able to do.

After we ate we decided to take one more trip down Court Street and then go home. Sheila had been my sighted guide the whole time, so they switched, and Andrea did it for a while. Andrea was a good guide too, but after we switched, I could feel Sheila on my other side guiding me too. She was so protective of me it was funny.

I swear, we knew everyone that was uptown that night. I didn't feel self-conscious about the blindfold, which surprised me. Quite a few people stopped and asked what I was doing and why. They wanted to know if I really couldn't see anything, so waving their hands in front of my face was common practice for most of them. One thing I found very humorous was that at least five people asked me if my hearing was better because I couldn't see. I thought about saying, "Why, yes of course, now I hear like Superman." But I guess that would have been inappropriate.

On our way back down Mill Street, there was an odd boy in front of us. He didn't see my blindfold at first and just thought that I was really drunk and couldn't walk, but then he realized that I couldn't see. He walked us home and followed behind me with his arms out in case I fell. It was strange that so many people I didn't know came up to me and were extremely protective of me. I guess they thought I would break.

The truth is that I suffered no injuries and no falls when I was blind, and I get hurt at least three times a day when I can see where I'm going. The thing I noticed the most was that I had to pay more attention to my other senses, and I had to pay more attention to where I put things. You can figure out where people are in the room by listening just as well as looking, but you don't give your hearing the chance because seeing is quicker. It surprised me that people were so shocked that I could make phone calls, use the microwave, go down the stairs, eat without seeing my food, and walk quickly. All these things were easy, and I won't ever think of a blind person as helpless. This ended up being a good experience, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to do it.