Simulation exercises for disability sensitization – different viewpoints

Do disability simulation exercises really work – opinion?
Do disability simulation exercises really work – opinion?

One of the ways that organizations sensitize people about disability is through simulation exercises – i.e. make people sit on a wheelchair, blindfold them, give ear plugs, tie their hands up etc. in order for them to experience disability. Some feel this helps understand barriers faced by people with disabilities, while others are quite against it. They say this only evokes pity or the feeling that “Thank God we are not disabled”. We decided to ask a few people in the disability sector to get their views.

Here are their views.

“I personally think that simulation exercises sometimes scares people. For example if you blindfold somebody who can see can only experience fear, which is not the case for people with blindness. And the exercise only limits to a limited understanding of barriers faced by wheelchair users. Doesn’t always help. It evokes sympathy towards disabled people.” ~ Arman Ali, Executive Director, NCPEDP (wheelchair user – cerebral palsy)

“Disability simulation exercises have always made me uncomfortable. In fact, I used to cringe whenever I saw them happening in front of me. I never spoke against them because I thought people organizing them knew better.

What is sensitization? Sensitization doesn’t always mean feeling the same pain the other person is feeling. Sitting in a wheelchair doesn’t make you a person with disability because in your mind you know that you can get up whenever you want to.

A disability isn’t just a physical constraint. A disability carries a lifetime of memories, encounters and experiences, not just the fact that you are sitting in a wheelchair.

Sensitization means knowing that the pain exists and there is a different way of living and despite how the person lives, he or she has a right to exist in a society. It’s an attitudinal change.

What I personally think is, people don’t understand disability because for most, it is an alien concept. I often use this example: my grandmother used to say that she never saw a disabled person before I was born, and when I was born, she could see disabled people almost everywhere.

Since we don’t have accessible places and accessible transport, it is not possible for most of the persons with disabilities to move around. Hence, it becomes a vicious circle. Somewhere, that circle needs to be broken. But that’s a larger issue.

So, what’s the solution?

  • Stronger implementation of law.
  • Regular interaction between persons with disabilities and persons with no disabilities.
  • Making accessible places by default rather than in anticipation of accommodating persons with disabilities.” ~ Amrit Hallan, Business Owner, Credible Content (person with cerebral palsy)

“One thing which I as a person with disability find amusing is to see disability being associated with failure or being seen as a person of lesser abilities. This makes people think that they should be grateful not to be disabled. In the first place being disabled doesn’t mean one is leading a lesser life. It simply means one needs to do things a bit differently from the norm and the end result is the same. So it is quite irrational to feel grateful about not being disabled.” ~ Vijay Krishnamani, Committee Member, Suniye (person with hearing disability)

“Persons without disabilities and some persons with disabilities think that such simulations will give the experience of disability and make a person without disability understand disability, i.e. the feel of disability in the way that a person with disability feels and experiences it. However I like many of my colleagues in the disability rights arena differ from this point.

“I had been a person without disability earlier and then came to terms with my disability about 18 years back.

“When I was in college and was helping my blind friend to write her exams or read lessons for her, not a minute had I thought that she is a person of less ability due to her disability. Nor had she expressed so. We both just enjoyed our college days equally. There was no thought at all even on the difference that we both had, as everyone in the class is different in their own way and so is my friend who had disability.

“When I got Multiple Sclerosis and became bed-ridden, my friends visited me, spent time with me as I wasn’t able to go to college to be with them, kept me laughing as usual, trained me to walk and the repeated phase of relapse and remission had not really changed the person that I am. Even after 18 years of my disability, I am the same kind of person. I have spasm in my body and band like sensation in my ribs which has become my normal experience or my normalcy. Now I don’t really know how it will feel to be without my band and spasm as I am used to it for 20 years and am ok about. If I have to make someone feel my band like sensation by tying a ribbon or cord around their trunk, it will not work out as they will not get the same experience, because its not their nature. Their nature is to be without a band and if suddenly we create a discomfort to them, it will only create pain for them and to pity me. Whereas it is my natural feeling which isnt painful or self pitying for me and I know how to work out my day and tasks with my disability.

“My point with both the above life experiences is that everyone is unique, has different physical, mental and emotional feelings about one’s own body and nature, which can never be experienced by another person or made to experience by another person, whether disabled or not. That is why human diversity has to be accepted, respected and celebrated as proclaimed by UNCRPD. Unfortunately people and society think that only persons with disabilities are different as they have some or other disability. But the truth is that no two person on this planet are alike or feel alike and every human being is different and diverse. if this truth unfolds in every head and heart, we won’t need the simulations but will only have mutual respect, by nature.

“When respect emerges for another person, one wont try to experience how one’s body, ability or disability feels to her but will accommodate her as she is, simply provide equal opportunities and try to remove barriers for her as I did for my blind friend or my friends did for me.

We persons with disabilities don’t face disability just by being ourselves but only when we face barriers in the environment and the mindsets of people. I am sure that someone cannot remove barriers for persons with disabilities or accommodate them or provide equal opportunities to them by experiencing their so called impairment (which nobody actually can), but can only do that if he or she respects persons with disabilities for what they are and sensitive to the barriers prevailing in the environment and society, and attempts to remove them or voice against the barriers. Experiencing some discomfort or difficulty will only lead to pity persons with disabilities, more inequality, rejection (non acceptance) as equal human beings and moving away from human diversity, which is the beauty of nature.” ~ Smitha Sadasivan, Member, Disability Rights Alliance India (person with Multiple Sclerosis)

“I am against discarding any approach / tool to create awareness on disability. If it creates that much needed awareness even in one individual why not? But as a right based activist and as a person with disability, I wonder as to whether it is the right approach to understanding disability?

“To give you few examples of simulation, blindfold a person, tell him/ her to navigate his way through or plug one’s ears, ask him or her to communicate with the world around him or her etc., in order to make him/ her understand disability. I believe this approach reinforces the same stereotypes that have been existing since time immemorial that persons with disability are not so fortunate and we (non disabled) ‘need to understand them and their needs.’ Can this be called sensitivity in the post CRPD era?” ~ Priya Varadan, Researcher on Disability issues (person with cerebral palsy)

“Simulation needs to be done to emphasise on the challenges that people with disabilities face rather than disability itself. If the simulation exercise is done without thinking through the barriers and the social model approach, it reinforces fear of disability, arouses emotions of pity and charity, participants just feel grateful that they do not have any disability” ~ Dr. Meenu Bhambhani, Vice President and Head – Corporate Social Responsibility, Mphasis Limited (person with orthopedic disabilty)

“Simulation exercises for disability sensitisation work well when you’re dealing with people/ groups of people with no or cursory exposure to disability – it gives them an idea of the challenges and hurdles faced by person with disabilities that they must know of but really never think about or experience. Important then for disability groups to take the narrative forward stressing on the rights of persons with disabilities as equal citizens of India rather than focus on the charity, pity mode.” ~ Rati Misra, Advisor, NCPEDP

“Personally, I have been able to experience and also observed behavior changes when simulations are used to get an inclusive message across for example overcoming barriers – when you do an intervention of actually creating barriers and people are asked to remove them, to get to a point, then the realization is much quicker and stronger to know that creating an environment which is barrier free, for the integration and inclusion of people with disabilities.” ~ Annice Joseph, Global Lead, Cross-Generational Intelligence, SAP

“Such exercises are ok initially to sensitize them about diverse human conditions but that is not enough. Real issues are social attitudes and barriers, lack of required support and opportunities and human dignity. Society needs to understand the injustice it does to people who are different in abilities.” ~ Dr. Shanti Auluck, Muskaan (Parent of a person with developmental disability)

“Disability simulations, I am generally against them. My sense is that they do not create conditions for empathy or understanding. They make students/participants feel that disability is difficult, tragic, full of obstacles, etc. They don’t allow for the consideration of the fact that in many cases, disabled people have grown into and with their disabilities and experience them as part of their sensorium or life-world; they are not seen as lack. I like instead to talk to my students and colleagues about identity, culture, politics, whatever. For me, disability is both an embodied and a political issue and I expect others to get the politics but not necessarily the embodied aspects– how can we understand the bodily experience of another person?

I never do them. Some times in classes I might have students communicate only using gesture but the point of that is to explore the affordances of the body and how we can communicate non-linguistically. I’d rather have students/participants design a political campaign or a barrier-free space, for example.” ~ Michele Friedner, Assistant Professor, University of Chicago Départment of Comparative Human Development

“We, in DEOC, have never used simulation as a way to sensitise people about disability. I feel it promotes stereotypes about disability. I have seen the sessions where simulations were done to teach about disability in the olden days. Many organizations stopped using this method based on some of the reactions of participants (who didn’t know the politically right thing to say). Their reactions were, “We should be grateful to God that we can see/walk”. “We should stop complaining about small things in life” “Oh my God these people face so much difficulties.” People have cried after attending such workshops. Many participants give positive feedback about such workshops as they make them feel good about themselves and it is also engaging. However, it does not help the cause of disability. It probably gives the initial experience of becoming disabled but how people adjust and learn with time is not understood. Disability is not just physical. If a man dresses in a woman’s clothes, would he understand the barriers faced by women?

“Some have argued that simulation helps people to learn about accessibility. You do not have to sit on a wheelchair to know the barriers. You can walk along with a person using a wheelchair or a blind person or communicate with a deaf person to know the accessibility barriers. Moreover, there are several types of wheelchairs – manual, motorised, tri-wheelers, scooter and so on (there are variations in sizes as well). Also, people using the wheelchairs are also very different, some may have trunk control/some may not; some may be able to use hands well, stretch fully, have dexterity and some may not…. You need to understand all these.. Many people think that mobility disability means people using wheelchairs, which is not the case! There is a range – from a person with difficulty walking, to using a stick, walker, crutches to even a stretcher. Their accessibility needs are different. Also, how are you going to simulate other impairments which are not physical? They also face accessibility barriers. Those aspects then get missed out. One corporate leader shared in a seminar proudly that he sat on a wheelchair to test if the toilet was accessible! Audiences clapped! But thats not the way to test! There are accessibility standards which to great extent take into account these variations I mentioned. So, test it against the standards. User feedback is crucial. Invite people with different disabilities and take their views.” ~ Rama Krishnamachari, Director, DEOC


Most disability leaders/activists are clearly against simulation as a method to educate people about disabilities.

In the post CRPD and RPWD Act era, our awareness workshops should change.

There are many ways to sensitise which can be equally engaging like,

  1. Have a panel discussion of people with different disabilities.
  2. Organise inclusive activities.
  3. Information is empowerment – share information, how of it, disability etiquettes, terminologies, understanding of the law, standards, etc.
  4. Teach skills, like sign language, inclusive training methodology, etc.
  5. Show relevant films/videos and have a discussion.
  6. Display assistive technologies, have a demo.
  7. Case studies/group discussions on barriers and solutions.
  8. Outline challenges that need concrete solutions.

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