Electric Edge logo



"Day in Wheelchair" reporter finds frustration

Read the author's 2004 update.

'Disability Awareness - do it right!'
Order this book today!

Whether their perpetrators realize it or not,
Disability Awareness Days send


By Valerie Brew-Parrish

Blindfolded man Hey, Hey, Hey, it's Disability Awareness Day! Everyone gets a chance to see what it's really like to have a disability! Yank out those blindfolds, grab cotton to stuff in your ears, and plop yourself in a wheelchair to navigate around an obstacle course! To get the most out of Disability Awareness Day, it is important to try almost all the disabilities on for size.

Now it is time to tie one of your arms behind you so you can fully appreciate a paralyzed limb.

Man with puzzled look No doubt about it, life with a disability is a tragedy! Why these poor gimps, blinks, and others would be better off dead! They are so courageous and yet pitiful as they go about their daily routines. Yep, I'm so glad it is their fate and not mine . . .

Sadly, these are the misconceptions that the public holds about those of us who live with disabilities. Disability simulations do nothing but reinforce these negative stereotypes about persons with disabilities.

Man with stern expression Like the Jerry Lewis Telethon, disability simulations should be abolished. The disability community should be as outraged by disability simulations as they are over the negative implications of telethons. Overwhelming feelings of pity well up in those who simulate a disability -- and pity does not equate with dignity. Disability simulations rob persons with disabilities of their dignity and self respect.

Blindfolded man jumping Simulations are phony. To "simulate" means to assume the mere appearance of -- without the reality. The reality is this: nondisabled persons can never understand what it is like to have a disability. Jumping in a wheelchair for a few minutes, wearing a blindfold, and stuffing cotton in one's ears does not make a person understand life with a disability.

Man pushing empty wheelchair People who have never been disabled who simulate a disability are often terrified. Many of the "simulators" even cheat a little. Haven't we all observed a person standing up in their wheelchair in order to lift the chair over a curb? They breathe a collective sigh of relief knowing full well that their charade will soon come to an end and their momentary disability will gratefully vanish.

Woman jumping Agencies purportedly serving disabled clients frequently advocate disability simulations, with fancy brochures encouraging the public to assume a disability with blindfolds and wheelchairs. The pamphlets gleefully expound the theory that disability simulations are useful for teaching family members and others what the person with a disability is really experiencing.

What these rehab professionals fail to realize is that the public does not have the coping skills or strategies developed by people who actually have disabilities.

Blind man with cane and glasses This point was clearly illustrated a few years ago when airline personnel decided to blindfold themselves to test evacuation procedures in case of an airline crash. The results were disastrous. Naturally. The airline staff had no training in mobility or orientation. Therefore, they erroneously concluded that blind persons could never safely evacuate a plane. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When I'm disoriented in a dark place, I let my blind husband lead the way! The National Federation of the Blind has long argued that disability simulations are destructive. Other disability groups should follow their lead and speak out against these sordid attempts to empathize with us by becoming gimp for a day.

For several years, I was employed at a large university that sponsored an annual "Disability Awareness Day." Despite protests from students and staff with disabilities, the nondisabled sponsors of the event continued the spectacle.

Elegant woman I was told by participants that I was an inspiration because I coped so well with my disability. Others told me they would rather be dead than live with a disabling condition. The participants of the simulation debacle now looked at me with pity. In their eyes, I was no longer on an equal basis with them; they felt superior because all of their limbs were in proper working condition.

Running boy Regrettably, it seems every annual celebration of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, every disability awareness event, is combined with a tasteless display of disability simulations. In many instances, persons with disabilities are actually participating and perpetuating these contemptible attempts to make the public aware.

Woman with arms spread Awareness Days can be beneficial if it they are done properly; it is important for the public to meet with persons with disabilities and to interact with us. Why not have people who use wheelchairs discuss obstacles and the need for accessibility? Deaf persons can demonstrate sign language skills, and blind persons can show proper travel techniques. The public needs to know we exist; that we are professionals, parents and homeowners just like them.

But disability simulations need to die a quick death. There are more effective and positive ways to educate the public. Come on folks, we can do a better job getting our messages across. We do not need people to pretend they have disabilities and simulate our disabilities to understand us. All of us need to demand to be treated with dignity. When disability simulations become extinct, perhaps the flood of pity will dry up and be replaced with respect.

Valerie Brew-Parrish is a polio survivor and longtime disability activist. She writes a column on disability issues for her local newspaper.

Read the author's 2004 update.

Back to home page




© Copyright 1999 The Ragged Edge


This Website produced by Cliffwood Organic Works