The Problem with Disability Simulations

What’s it like not to be able to see?

That’s the basis for disability simulations on college campuses.  Students have disabilities, and often disability offices feel the need for faculty, staff, and other students to experience that for themselves, so they will know what it is like.  So we can have empathy for what they go through every day.

People in a room blindfolded, hands in front to feel their wayIf we put on a blindfold and try to navigate the campus, then we will better understand a blind student’s struggles, right?  Our heart is racing and we take our first tentative steps, afraid of our environment now, and we do our best to navigate in a new and pretty scary world.  For five long minutes we live in a dark and formless world, where what we’ve always known is hidden from us, and we try to find our way.

When time is up, we eagerly remove that wretched blindfold and squint in the light and thank God for the blessing of sight.  And our feelings of ineptness and perhaps vague discomfort at interacting with blind students has been transformed to something new.  The organizer of the disability simulation wanted us to know what it’s like to be blind.  And now we know.

Or we think we do.  Does a blind student’s heart race when they wake up and have to walk around in the dark?  Are they navigating our campuses in constant fear of what they may encounter with every step?  Are they awash with relief when they can be still and not have to walk in the dark any longer?  Of course not.  These skills have been practiced and honed and are that person’s normal.

The goal of the activity was not met.  It elicited sympathy and perhaps pity, neither of which are helpful at all.   It did not help with true understanding.

“What’s it like being deaf?”  NO.  The question is What’s it like to have a third person at your doctor’s as you discuss your most private issues, because your doctor doesn’t sign?

“What’s it like being a wheelchair user?” NO.  The question is What’s it like being excluded from the choir because of the stairs to the choir loft?

“What’s it like being blind?”  NO.  The question is What’s it like not being able to vote?!

A blindfold doesn’t help you understand the systematic oppression experienced every day by people with disabilities.  Their struggles are not because they are disabled.  It is because the environments in which they must interact were not designed with them in mind.

Let’s start with the right questions.  Only then can we work together for a more equitable and accessible world, where we direct our energy away from pity and toward full inclusion of everyone, no exceptions.


Sharon Downs | Personal Blog ”The One about Disability Simulations ” | June 2014

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