Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

Disability Simulations, Perceptions, etc

David Ball (@silktide) published an interesting blog a few days ago: Things I Learned By Pretending To Be Blind For A Week. His focus was around web accessibility. He had some interesting conclusions, and the discussion in the comments was also interesting. Still, disability simulations leave me a bit cold.

David’s Post

David used his computer for a week while blindfolded – using a screenreader to navigate the web (and the rest of his PC). He found the experience difficult. He noticed that there was a really steep learning curve. Some of the points he noted include:

  • Screenreading software helps navigate the entire computer, not just the web browser,
  • Navigating through headers is often the easiest way to go,
  • W3C validation doesn’t mean a site is accessible,
  • Screenreading software can read text really fast,
  • Link titles aren’t all that useful – this point triggering the bulk of the discussion in the comment area.

How People With Disabilities Feel About Such Simulations.

A part of me is happy to see this kind of information published. Another part of me is a bit weary of people without disabilities conducting "disability simulations". Disability simulations are popular activities it seems, particularly in schools. Usualy organised by people without disabilities as a way for kids/people to gain insight into what it’s like to live with a disability.

Most disability rights activists I speak to about disability simulations are ill at ease with these activities. We think that while the person doing the simulation gets an idea of barriers faced by people with disabilities, it is not an accurate view of said barriers. We tend to believe that the gains from simulating are too often outweighted by the negative perception people are left with.

There are a few great articles available on this topic. I suggest you read the following two by Valerie Brew-Parrish:

For something a bit more "meaty", there’s an interesting scholarly article by Sheryl Burgstahler and Tanis Doe (2004): Disability-related Simulations: If, When, and How to Use Them in Professional Development

Skewed Perceptions Lead To Negative Understanding of Disability

The problem is there are too many things that skew perception during such simulations.

  • The simulator has not developed skills to mitigate their disability.
  • High risk of "false negatives" – not knowing how to use the assistive technology may lead to believing there is a barrier where in fact there isn’t one.
  • Using a blindfold, or taping legs together, or stuffing cotton wool in your ears is not a realistic simulation – it is next to impossible to trully simulate an impairment.
  • The simulator knows it will soon end, or that they can stop the experiment (or "cheat", as David admits doing) anytime they wish.

All too often, people coming out of disability simulations end up perceiving life with a disability as being a horrid experience, completely frustrating, with no positive. The simulator often ends up feeling pity for people with disabilities, or conversely, unjustified admiration (I wrote about that here: When Admiration Reflects Low Expectations). There are even people who feel they couldn’t live with a disability and would rather be dead!

Discussions With, And Demonstrations By, People With Disabilities Would Be Better

Over the years of doing disability awareness training, I’ve discovered that people without disabilities seem to get a more accurate understanding of life with a disability when they have a chance to view demonstrations of how people with disabilities handle every day tasks or deal with specific barriers. Dave linked to a couple great demonstrations like that, notably the one of Sina Barham demonstrating using screenreader software.

On top of demonstrations, the ability to ask questions that are answered candidly is a great way to learn about disability.

Between solid demonstrations and honest questions/answers, people will get a much better perception of disability. And it has the added bonus of involving people with disabilities, rather than keeping us away.

People With Disabilities Need To Be Available

For demonstrations and discussions to happen, however, people with disabilities have to be available. Too many of us get tired and worn down by having to answer people’s questions out of the blue, out of context. Eventually, even the most open advocate gets tired. There’s also a perception that if we want to be understood, we should just give "it" away for free. Implied in that feeling is that we have nothing better to do – we have no job, no family, no life. Our only responsibility is to educate people about life with a disability, right?

That last sentence was a bit provocative – and that was done on purpose. The reality of it is that people with disabilities *do* have a responsibility of educating people about disabilities, as long as it is in the right context. We have a right to encounter a barrier-free environment (be it the web, "brick & mortar" facilities, education, etc), but we have a responsibility to help people without disabilities understand what such an environment might be like.

As long as we don’t all work hand in hand towards a barrier-free environment, it’s not going to happen.