In my recent blog, “Wheelchair for a Day”, I talked about the idea that some companies are using for “sensitivity training” of employees who work with people with disabilities... able-bodied people using wheelchairs for a day as their only means of mobility to gain a perspective of what life is like for a wheelchair user. I received an overwhelming amount of responses from my readers. One comment in particular brought up a really great idea about how this type of training might be very useful.
John Lee, an Assistive Technology Specialist, commented: I'm not normally a fan of these ‘wheelchair for a day’ simulations, but they can have some value if used sparingly and framed appropriately. As others have said, this exercise should be used as just one component in raising awareness about the disability experience. Inviting people with disabilities to speak about their experiences, talking with local disability advocacy groups, assigning disability narratives to read, learning about disability civil rights and its history, and hosting screenings of disability-related films/videos are important approaches that can and should be employed wherever possible.
If you have non-disabled individuals try using the wheelchair in accessible, universally-deigned environments and also in inaccessible environments, the dichotomy may give them a greater appreciation of the importance of the accessible-built environment and how it contributes to greater independence and inclusion. Similarly, let people try navigating examples of accessible/inaccessible websites with a keyboard only and view captioned/uncaptioned videos to better understand the importance of making information accessible to all.
The emphasis in any of these simulation exercises should be on showing that the problem is NOT with the individual, but instead with the barriers that they encounter. Furthermore, discussion should focus on how and why these barriers can be removed. Talk about employing universal design in all of these situations, whereby if we include the needs of as many people as possible in the INITIAL design of things (e.g., buildings, sidewalks, websites, documents, videos, etc.), then everyone stands to benefit. Have students try to think of examples in their daily lives where they've noticed universal design at play or examples where it should be used. Share examples where universal design is evident, such as curb cuts (also used by parents with baby strollers, skateboarders), captioned videos in loud environments (e.g., bars), long winding ramps in museums, automatic door openers in supermarkets, speech recognition (e.g., Siri) on our Smartphones, etc.
In closing, if you're going to use wheelchair simulation exercises or the like, try to frame it so that students come away not thinking that it ‘sucks to be disabled,’ but instead that it ‘sucks when people don't design things with people with disabilities and others in mind’ and that this can and should be changed by removing barriers and taking a more inclusive approach to design, communication, teaching, learning, etc.”
I think John’s point at the end, that the “students” in this exercise should come away from this experience thinking “it sucks when people don’t design things with people with disabilities and others in mind” and that this can and should be changed by “removing barriers and taking a more inclusive approach to design, communication, teaching, learning, etc.,” hits the nail on the head.
What are your thoughts?