When I was in high school and college, I sometimes got invited to speak to younger students about blindness. Sometimes, when I would talk to teachers ahead of time to plan lessons, the teachers wanted to blindfold the kids and have them try to do things without using their sight. This “disability simulation” practice always unsettled me, though I did not know why at the time. Generally I was able to persuade teachers not to do these disability simulations. However, as I got more involved with disability advocacy, a clear tension became evident to me. Many educators thought that disability simulation was an engaging, effective way to teach about disabilities. Yet many disability activists urged caution and argued that these simulations could unwittingly increase misunderstanding. In all of this back-and-forth, though, compelling research evidence was absent.
On this week’s blog post, I want to reprint an article I wrote for the NFB’s Braille Monitor. In it, I outline the results of two research projects I have conducted on disability simulations, along with some complementary research published by my colleague and friend, Dr. Michelle Nario-Redmond. The early research suggests that disability simulations can have an impact, for better or worse, on people’s beliefs about disabilities. The lessons these simulations teach depend critically on how the simulations are done and what kind of emotional impression they leave on participants. A well-organized simulation activity, ideally one planned and executed by people with disabilities, can potentially instill positive beliefs, but the kind of unstructured simulation that is too often implemented can have real negative impacts. It is important to emphasize that this research is just beginning, and there is still much more we need to learn about the best ways to teach disability wisdom.
Disability Simulations: What Does the Research Say?
Disability simulations are one of the most popular activities used to teach about disabilities. They generally involve having people perform everyday activities with a temporary disability, such as a blindfold, earplugs, or a wheelchair. Notably, they are popular with educators, but highly controversial among disability activists, including members of the NFB. As blind people we are deeply concerned about how these simulations affect public attitudes about blindness, for better or worse.
Recently President Mark Riccobono wrote about the possibilities and pitfalls of simulations. He distinguished between simulation-based activities that invoke fear versus activities that give people useful information about alternative techniques and accessibility barriers. He argues that the former kind of learning activity can worsen public attitudes about blindness, while the latter can help improve public understanding. I want to describe some initial research that supports this argument. I also want to emphasize that more research on this topic is badly needed.
In the past I have written about my own research with blindness simulations. In brief, my colleagues and I conducted several experiments in which sighted college students performed simple activities either with or without a blindfold on, depending on the flip of a coin. Minimal instruction in alternative techniques was given. Afterward, they answered questions about how well they thought blind people could perform particular activities and how well they thought they would adjust if they became blind themselves. Consistently, the blindfolded students said they thought blind people couldn’t perform activities as well as the un-blindfolded students. For example, about half of the blindfolded students thought that blind people have trouble “living independently, in their own house or apartment,” but only about a third of the un-blindfolded students expressed this view. Further, when asked how well they would adjust to being blind themselves, the blindfolded students predicted that it would take them longer to adjust and that they would be more limited by blindness compared with the un-blindfolded students. It is clear that the blindness simulation focused attention on the initial hardship of becoming blind rather than the successful adjustment process.
Just this month my colleague Michelle Nario-Redmond published two studies of multi-disability simulations (Nario-Redmond, Gospodinov, & Cobb, 2017). In the first study college students went through stations where they had to read someone’s lips with earplugs in, pick up their lunch in a wheelchair, or read text written backwards (a crude dyslexia simulation). In the second study students read driving directions using low-vision goggles, read them backwards, and then listened to them read aloud with earplugs. Again, no instruction about alternative techniques was offered. Before and after each study, the students reported their moods as well as their comfort level interacting with disabled people. Dr. Nario-Redmond and her colleagues compared the students’ moods and comfort levels before versus after the simulations. They found that after the simulation activities, the students felt more confused, embarrassed, helpless, and (especially after the wheelchair simulation) more anxious than before. They were also more likely to agree with statements like “I am grateful that I don’t have such a burden” (of disability), and “I dread the thought that I could someday end up like them” (disabled people). In the second study, the students also reported feeling less comfortable interacting with disabled people in the future. Thus, the simulations not only made people feel negatively about disability but could also hurt their future interpersonal interactions.
Again, both of these research projects used the traditional type of disability simulation, which thrusts people into disability without any training in alternative techniques or changeable environmental barriers. Such simulations are designed to produce fear and distress to play up the plight of disability. As the above research suggests, they do a good job of that. Perhaps a different kind of learning activity, one that instructs people in useful alternative techniques, could have a different effect.
Recently, I tested this question by designing an activity for occupational and physical therapy students (Silverman et al., 2017). The students learned and successfully performed two activities: first transferring from a chair to a manual wheelchair and wheeling across the room, and then making a sandwich using their non-dominant hand and a variety of assistive aids. We deliberately set up the activities to expose the students to alternative techniques, without being so difficult that novice students would have a hard time completing them. Before and after the activity, we asked the students to rate how happy and healthy people feel who have paraplegia (unable to walk) or hemiplegia (unable to use their dominant hand). After the learning activity, the students thought that people with both disabilities see themselves as happier and healthier, compared with their views before the activity. The brief encounter with effective alternative techniques gave them a more positive sense of what life can be like with a disability.
It is evident that experiential activities need to include a clear teaching component with instruction in specific alternative techniques in order to have positive results. Disability simulation without instruction may intensify people’s preexisting fears and misconceptions about disabilities. But direct instruction, along with exposure to competent blind and other disabled role models, may be an effective way to promote accurate understanding and positive attitudes.
Other types of learning activities, as President Riccobono mentions, warrant further study. For example, President Riccobono suggests that observing a blind person navigating both accessible and inaccessible web content or dealing with custodial attitudes at the airport could be a positive learning experience. This is likely true but warrants further research to determine the most impactful ways of teaching about environmental barriers. Additionally, the long-term effects of disability education activities in general are unclear and deserve further study. Finally, as President Riccobono points out, simulations are often used for fundraising purposes. There is a need to think carefully about alternative fundraising strategies that don’t rely on fear and pity.
In conclusion, there is reason to advise caution when designing learning activities for sighted people that include blindfolds or other simulation equipment. The benefits of such activities may not outweigh the fear, discomfort, and doubt they can instill. Educators should be mindful of the learning objective for any activity and provide appropriate guidance to help reach that objective. In the NFB we know from our collective experience that teaching by example can be a powerful change agent in the minds of the sighted public. Regardless of the equipment used, our leadership in designing lessons about blindness is an important ingredient for their success.
Nario-Redmond, M. R.; Gospodinov, D.; & Cobb, A. (2017, March 13). Crip for a day: The unintended negative consequences of disability simulations. Rehabilitation Psychology. Available online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/rep0000127
Riccobono, M. (2017). Walking a mile: The possibilities and pitfalls of simulations. Available online: https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/bm/bm17/bm1704/bm170402.htm
Silverman, A. M. (2015). The perils of playing blind: Problems with blindness simulation and a better way to teach about blindness. Available online:
Silverman, A. M.; Pitonyak, J. S.; Nelson, I. K.; Matsuda, P.; Kartin, D.; & Molton, I. R. (2017). Instilling positive beliefs about disabilities: Pilot testing a novel experiential learning activity for rehabilitation students. Disability and Rehabilitation. Available online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09638288.2017.1292321
[Reprinted from: Braille Monitor, June 2017 ]