"Day in Wheelchair" reporter finds frustration
Read the author's 2004 update.
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Whether their perpetrators realize it or not,
Disability Awareness Days send
By Valerie Brew-Parrish
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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