This Is How To Be A Better Ally To Disabled People — Without Disability Simulators

by JR Thorpe
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The fight for proper representation for disabled people, pay equality, fair accessibility, and other marks of equal citizenry remains difficult and without foreseeable resolution, even in one of the richest nations on Earth. Part of the problem, some believe, is that able-bodied people — who are far more represented in legislatures and media alike — can easily exclude disabled people from their priorities, laws, and belief systems because they can't imagine what it's actually like to be disabled. Disability simulators — experiments that imitate the experience of being disabled for able-bodied people — are designed to increase empathy and awareness of the issues facing disabled people, but a new study suggests that these simulators are ineffective. What's more, they may lead to able-bodied people being less informed about the experience of being disabled.

Able-bodied people need to do better by their disabled peers. The thinking behind disability simulators — that those who participate in them will be more empathetic to people who actually live day in and day out with their disabilities — is that the participants will be more empathetic, more accepting, and more inclined to organize on behalf of the disabled community. However, the disabled community and a growing group of scientists are right to criticize these tests for a host of reasons, as there are many, many other ways for able-bodied people to be allies without them.

The History Of Simulation Experiments

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Simulation experiments have been popular for several decades. Throughout the 20th century in America, it was more common to regard disabled people as a "problem" to be solved with institutionalization, eugenics, and forced sterilization than as people with experiences that deserved to be known more widely. In light of that history, simulation experiments that promote empathy represent a big leap forward.

Simulation experiments can work across a range of disabilities, from blindness to deafness, dyslexia to mobility problems. (Obviously there are some disabilities which are extremely difficult to simulate even for a short period, which is another reason people are questioning disability simulators.) Able-bodied people are meant to experience the "realities" of disability, by attempting to do activities they themselves would take for granted while under the artificial conditions of disability. Understandably, those activities become a lot harder, which is supposed to give able-bodied people a greater appreciation of disabled struggles. James Jackson, an IT accessibility coordinator at Michigan State University who also happens to be dyslexic, explains:

"It’s easy for us to elicit sympathy, to get people to agree that students with disabilities should have access to course content, but it’s more difficult for us to provide opportunities for faculty and staff to develop a personal connection with students."

Disability simulations tend to be given to people who work with disabled people regularly — care workers and teachers, for instance — and some studies reveal that they can do some good. A 2017 study of nursing students, for instance, found that the students' attitudes towards disabled people seemed to improve after doing a disability empathy activity, and a 2016 study of trainee teachers noted that those who did one were more likely to advocate for and be empathetic to future disabled students. This new science reveals, however, that they're not as effective as they might look.

Why Simulation Experiments Don't Work

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The new research from Hiram College, which is titled "Crip For a Day," shows another side of disability simulation experiments. The researchers explained that while disability simulations did make able-bodied people feel warmer and more kindly towards the disabled, the able-bodied didn't feel better about interacting with disabled people. "Disability simulations made [able-bodied] participants feel more confused, embarrassed, helpless, and more vulnerable to becoming disabled themselves compared to baseline," the scientists wrote. They continued:

"Participants judged themselves less competent, expressed more pity, expressed more interaction discomfort, and were not more willing to interview disabled students for an accessibility project following the simulations compared to baseline. Frustration, guilt, anxiety, and depression were most pronounced among those who interacted with disabled people less than once per month."

The problem here should be obvious. Being disabled can be a challenging experience, but if simulations are simply producing distress without actually improving able-bodied peoples' ideas about the disabled community, they're not working. In 2014, scientists from the University of Colorado, Boulder, published results that showed that able-bodied people who do physical simulation exercises actually rate disabled people as less competent afterwards, and are more likely to believe negative stereotypes about the disabled.

There are two other big criticisms of disability simulations. One is that they simply don't go far enough, and can't give an accurate picture. Another, related criticism is that they're restricted by time, and many of the biggest issues of living with a disability come with cumulative frustration and stress over time. The Division of Disability Resources & Educational Services at the University of Illinois explicitly refuses to let able-bodied students attempt to experience disability using things like wheelchairs, because, as they point out, these sorts of experiences are limited, "other" disabled people, and make able-bodied people feel, falsely, as if they really understand what disability is like.

Able-bodied people, by definition, are also bad at being disabled. Toby Olson, executive secretary of the Washington state Governor's Committee on Disability Issues and Employment, explains that this is a key problem:

"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."

Simulations, as Olson and other people point out, don't exactly give an accurate impression of life with a disability, and can in fact reinforce negative stereotypes. Disability rights advocate Emily Ladau wrote for the Huffington Post, "It may make a person more aware of another person’s experiences, but it doesn’t dig deep to the root of discrimination against people with minority identities. Instead, it’s more likely to evoke empathy or pity than true acceptance." Pity, inaccurate and skewed views of what being disabled is "really like," and alarm and distress aren't the ways to provide better links between able-bodied and disabled people. They may actually just make things worse.

Encouraging Empathy Isn't Good Enough

The big, political issue with empathetic simulation experiments, beyond their limitations and negative impacts, are that they privilege the able-bodied person's perspective. Assuming that people will only act to help the disabled community if they themselves assume disability for a day only gives able-bodied people more power to control the narrative of disability rights.

The real solution to helping to empower the disabled community may actually be taking a different, and altogether simpler route: interacting with them as people. The blog Independence Chick, which is in favor of empathy-building activities to create better bonds between disabled and able-bodied people, also points out that there are other ways to make the world a better place for disabled people, and most of them involve interacting with them with respect, and letting them take the lead on how their stories are told. Not asking insensitive questions is a good tact, as is not putting the onus on disabled people to educate you about their disability.

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.