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Awareness Days sendThe Wrong Message says Valerie Brew-Parrish

blindfolded man



Awareness Days:
Some Alternatives to Simulation Exercises.

'Disability Awareness - do it right!'
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Man pushing empty wheelchair

A staple of 'Awareness Days' is the simulation exercise: Put a nondisabled person in a wheelchair. Tie on a blindfold. But these tactics are often criticized as sending the wrong message. What are the alternatives? Chapman University's Art Blaser has a few suggestions.

1. Talk about doing simulations -- without doing them. What are the kinds of experiences that only a nondisabled person simulating a disabled one would have? What are simulations designed to do? Is that a desirable objective? Do they really accomplish that objective? Why, or why not?

2. Listen to a disabled person -- one in your neighborhood, your class, around school Ask them about their life -- not about medical aspects of the disability. When we compare what we've found out, we'll have heard not from a couple of "experts" but from enough people to realize that there are differences and similarities. Then compare the findings with information about disabled people in the U.S. from the U.S. Census and Harris surveys done for the National Organization on Disability.

3. Read a book or watch a video about a person with a disability. John Hockenberry's Moving Violations is a good book; When Billy Broke his Head is a good video, so is Kiss My Wheels. Consider whether the experiences depicted are typical or atypical and why.

4. Try not doing something: If a restaurant isn't accessible, try not going there. If a restroom isn't accessible, don't use it. If there's space to do so, see a movie from the "wheelchair section." If you go with friends, don't suggest or restrict where they sit.

5. Some people with disabilities insist that there are many positive aspects to the experience of being disabled. Discuss why they say this.

6. Survey neighborhoods: cars parked over driveways, unleashed dogs, sidewalks and curb-cuts, color contrast on stairs ( people with low vision need this), branches that can hit a blind person. Note audible cues (such as horns honking).

  • Find a curb cut. Is the "cut" flush with the street at the bottom, or is there still a lip? Is the curb cut broken? Would it be easy or hard to use it in a wheelchair? Are cars parked in front of it, making it unusable?
  • Look at the entrance to your favorite coffee shop or bookstore. Is it flat? Is there a small step? Are there lots of steps? What would need to be altered to make it accessible? Sometimes there's a loading ramp in back a disabled person can use. What do you think about having to enter that way?
  • Go to a local clothing shop in the mall. Notice how much space there is between racks of clothes. What would this be like for someone who is blind or who has a mobility disability?

7. Find out what confronts a family traveling and living in motels or hotels. Visit a local hotel. Find out where TDD/TTY phones are and how you would find one if you were deaf. Find out what choices you'd have if you needed to get a wheelchair accessible room for a family of 6. If you were a wheelchair user, would you be able to use the bathroom in the room? Or the shower?

Man with puzzled look

There are positives to being disabled!

8. Search for a personal assistant. Find out what the job entails. Local newspapers will contain ads. The local center for independent living is a source of other leads. Some people work through companies listed in the Yellow Pages. Without misrepresenting yourself, find out what they charge and what they pay. Would you take such a job? Why or why not?

9. Doing the things above may reinforce your idea of just of how bad it is being disabled.. Using a 5x8 card, anonymously write down reactions you'd have if you were to wake up as a member of the other gender. How would you react? How would your family, your friends and your neighbors react? Now share this with the others in your group doing this exercise. Did it turn out that a lot of your preconceptions were just plain silly?

10. Even obviously artificial pretending can be lots of fun. There are three exercises you may want to do. Try these at home:

  • Bob Cummings, who used to be executive director of the Center for Independent Living in Orange Co., CA., would ask his audiences to shut their eyes. He'd then ask if they'd stopped thinking about their next meal, their appointments with friends, or what they'd be doing an hour from now. Of course they hadn't! His point was that an awful lot remains the same whether you are blind (as he was) or not. The example he liked to give of what he couldn't do was skeet shooting -- which he'd never done (nor had any desire to do) before he was blind, either.
  • "Stuffing your mouths with marshmallows will produce speech like mine," Blaser tells his students. "Does that then mean you will then know how I think, too? If so, then I can go home. You could, too, but you wouldn't do well in the class."
  • A simulation with practical effect is the closed fist that can't open round door hardware, but can open lever type door handles. The open hand will open either type.

In the exercises above, some disabilities are covered more than others. Why might that be?

People will often talk about disability in terms of what people can't do. When might this lead to dubious conclusions?

Art Blaser chairs the Political Science Dept. at Chapman University. His most recent article for Ragged Edge was "Changing the meaning of 'disability'."

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