Many advocates, myself included, often point to the general population’s ignorance of the experience of disability as being central to the oppression faced by the disabled. The problem is that too many developers, designers and administrators are designing buildings, spaces, and programs along normative understandings of ability and function rather than basing their work in the aberrance of the human form. For years, we have run events like “Spend A Day In A Wheelchair,” in which able-bodied individuals are assigned certain disabilities and required to complete tasks, the theory being that by experiencing life with a disability these individuals will have a better understanding/appreciation for the plight of the disabled. In this blog, I would like to take some time to explain why this is a flawed educational tool and recommend we stop deploying these schemes, as they’re doing more to hurt the disabled subject than help.

Let me explain…

Pretending to be disabled, not actual disability

The core reason why these events are doomed to fail is because they are just simulations and therefore not a genuine experience of life with a disability. Ultimately, not being able to access a flight of stairs is frustrating for the participant but does not speak to the true anxiety and isolation of inaccessibility. Throughout the exercise, whether conscious or not, the participant knows their limitation is temporary and eventually they will be able to take off the blind fold or walk away from the wheelchair.  In this way, they are merely “playing” disabled, depicting limitation as some sort of challenge or game in which superior participants can navigate successfully. This is problematic because it is almost like black face, in which participants are asked to pretend to disabled “just for fun” and we, the viewing audience, are to sit and watch them struggle. Worst, though, this game sets disability up as a binary of “winners” and “losers,” an outcome that is ultimately in the hands of the user: if the disabled just try hard enough, they too can overcome. Further, knowing the simulation will end greatly reduces the impact, with participants only concerned about barriers insofar as it affects the outcome of the game and is not something they need to worry about otherwise.

Which brings us to the next problem…

The experience is too short

In rare circumstances these simulations extend an entire day, but generally participants are asked to adopt a specific diagnosis and attempt to complete a task as part of an organized event. Similar to converting limitation into a game, spending a couple of minutes in a wheelchair does not speak to the true forms of oppression the disabled face, most notably structural, attitudinal and policy related barriers. Confronting a set of stairs in a wheelchair is nothing compared to the stigma experienced when attempting to find work, the subsequent ordeal of applying to the Ontario Disability Support Program when you cannot get a job, or simply managing one’s daily personal care via a complex web of professional, private and personal support. System navigation is perhaps one of the most exhausting and arduous tasks associated with permanent disability, which cannot be simulated or replicated by spending several minutes (or even a day) in a wheelchair.

The result?

The root problem with “Spend a day in a wheelchair” events is the results generated from these interventions. Organizers of such events intend for participants to move from a medical model of disability to a social model, seeing first hand how inaccessible our world is and being inspired to make things better. The problem is that this is not the lesson most often taken from these activities. In my experience, participants often report having a new appreciation for how hard it is to be disabled: that things are not accessible, that pushing a wheelchair is tiring/painful, and that strangers will stare at you in public. Instead of ingratiating and integrating disability, this understanding serves only to validate preconceived feelings of pity for the plight of disabled while at the same time framing universal accessibility as being a project simply too big to achieve; there are just too many barriers. In this way, “Spend a day in a wheelchair” only really makes the nondisabled thankful they themselves do not require a wheelchair and further reinforces the distinction between those with and without disabilities.

So, what is the solution?

While there is no simple solution to this problem, the advice I can give is to stop running “Spend a day in a wheelchair” events as they are doing more to compromise the movement than support it. Rather than forcing people to “see the world through our eyes,” I think we need to spend more time showing how the nondisabled already are living in “our world;” that to be disabled is a universal subjectivity which we all experience as humans. In this way, the best way to make people understand why accessibility is important is not to force them to encounter the barriers we face but to show them all the barriers they face, already, each and every day and appeal to their own self interest. They already have a stake in the game of accessibility, they just don’t know it yet. A prime example of this comes from the classroom, in which I often talk to students about the ways mainstream education is inherently disabling: take for example standardized testing, which values certain skills, namely memorization and problem-solving, over others, like creativity and collaboration. Rather than making them understand our plight, we need to help the nondisabled understand that limitation is a reality we all share (regardless of diagnosis) as we are all fundamentally flawed creatures. In this way, to be limited is to be human and, therefore, accessibility is not just a privilege but a fundamental human right.

Additional reading…