Disability simulations are an area of controversy for many of us living with disabilities. They are also a big deal for teams seeking to make digital spaces accessible. In addition, disability simulations are posing difficult decisions for companies adding disability to their DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) efforts.
This article is designed to help you think about some aspects of disability simulations that aren’t always at the forefront.
Unintended consequences of disability simulations
Promoting incorrect impressions about our experiences.
Think about the people you know who are disabled. It may be someone who is blind or who uses a wheelchair. When you try to simulate their disability, are you navigating the world just like them? Probably not.
Example: In your simulation, you feel frustration while struggling to learn how to navigate a wheelchair. However, you know that you can walk down the hall to use the restroom. What you’re missing is the anxiety your friend feels when they need to use the restroom. How they wonder if their wheelchair can fit into the older building’s elevator to get down to the main floor. Or if they should ask you to go with them because the bathroom doesn’t have an electronic door.
Those of us living with disabilities have had far longer to adapt to our disability than a single afternoon. We’ve developed skills that can’t be simulated in a single moment of time.
“The long-term experience of living with a disability is more aptly characterized as adapting, adjusting, and developing new ways to do things when the usual ways don’t work. It is more commonly the active pursuit of an expanding life, not mourning for a contracting one.” – Toby Olson, person with a disability and former Executive Secretary of the Washington state Governor’s Committee on Disability Issues and Employment.
Making people reluctant to interact with us.
In a study from Hiram College titled, “Crip for a Day,” researchers found that the disability simulations caused students to decline interaction with people with disabilities.
“Disability simulations made [able-bodied] participants feel more confused, embarrassed, helpless, and more vulnerable to becoming disabled themselves compared to baseline…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.” Crip for a day: The unintended negative consequences of disability simulations – PubMed (nih.gov)
Because our company was built to bring digital accessibility experts with disabilities together with abled-bodied developers and designers, we found this information alarming. Organizations should weigh carefully if disability simulations will help or hurt their website/software accessibility work, and their DEI efforts.
Fuel assumptions that we are less capable than we really are.
A 2015 University of Colorado study shows that disability simulations can distort reality:
“Simulating other people’s difficulties often improves attitudes toward those people. In the case of physical disabilities, however, such experience simulations can backfire. By highlighting the initial challenges of becoming disabled, experience simulations decrease the perceived adaptability of being disabled and reduce the judged capabilities of disabled people.” Stumbling in Their Shoes: Disability Simulations Reduce Judged Capabilities of Disabled People – Arielle M. Silverman, Jason D. Gwinn, Leaf Van Boven, 2015 (sagepub.com)
At WeCo, we can attest to this. Our public AT device demos after result in surprise about well and easily our people handle their equipment. “I didn’t know that JAWS could do that,” we may hear from a sighted “JAWS Expert” on a development team. They then confess to us how limited their view had been of the software, and the people who use it.
Read more about disability simulation:
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