Disability Simulations: Harmful or Enlightening?

Published December 17, 2020

One of the strategies used to promote inclusivity and accessibility that has proved the most controversial is the disability simulation. In a disability simulation, participants are asked to use a wheelchair or otherwise "experience" disability — this could mean goggles that simulate blindness or videos meant to simulate autism. It’s a tool that many instructors make a key part of their practice, even as criticism of the practice mounts, but why the pushback and what are some alternatives?

Dr. David Legg is a professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a long history as a volunteer and administrator at wheelchair sports organizations, including the Canadian Paralympic Committee, and uses a disability simulation in his adapted physical activity classroom. Legg acknowledges that he does not live with a disability but says that, to him, the positives outweigh the negatives.

The pros, in my way of thinking, are that it helps students understand accessibility from a mobility perspective. I think better than any other mechanism that I've come across, particularly as it relates to things like slopes of ramps, size of doorways, locations of [support] bars for toilets...But I find, in my experience anyway, that it's not until the students spend an entire day on campus in a wheelchair that they can then better understand some of those things that we talk about.

Legg says he brings former Paralympians in the area to his classroom in order to stress that a simulation is not a stand-in or an opportunity for mimicry of the disabled experience and his course listing on Mount Royal’s website provides a number of articles critical of the practice. So, if a leader in the Paralympic movement has seemingly checked all the boxes, what’s the big deal? According to some leaders in the disability community, event planners need to be aware of how simulations can be degrading to the disabled community at large.

In a 2017Huffington Post article, writer Emily Ladau spoke candidly about why she feels that the practice is culturally harmful.

How can what amounts to a game of pretend enlighten a person about something that has shaped my entire life? Of course, I realize there are several people and organizations out there that are trying to do their best to use simulation activities to create positive change. But at the end of the day, the temporary glimpse into disability that such exercises provide are just that — temporary. It is simply impossible to fully immerse yourself in another person’s being.

Another opponent of disability simulation is an institution with a long history of disability advocacy: The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, home to Dr. Timothy Nugent, founder of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. The school champions disability immersion experiences over simulations and points to the cultural harm that can come from the typical disability simulation.

Disability, in almost all contexts, is not a condition that can be taken 'on or off,' placing it similar to other cultural identities such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or religious affiliation. One cannot pretend to be a person from a different race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Disability is comparable in that an attempt to 'simulate' disability can be perceived as deeply prejudicial and hurtful.

With recent research pointing to the negative impacts of simulation activities, and staff at the Do-It Center at the University of Washington suggesting activities like roundtable discussions, a resource fare, or a petition signing instead of a simulated day in a wheelchair, perhaps the topic was best summed up by JR Thorpe for Bustle.

Disabled people themselves tell the able-bodied community that empathetic experiments don't work. So instead of utilizing these experiments, perhaps able-bodied people who want to be better allies to the disabled community should focus on listening to and working with disabled people themselves. It shouldn't take a flawed experiment to make us capable of working for a better world together.

The takeaway is that one should think carefully and explore alternatives instead of immediately reaching for the surface level of understanding that comes from borrowing a wheelchair for a day.

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