What’s up with disability “awareness” demonstrations anyway? I’m talking about those exercises designed for school kids to “experience” what it’s like to live with a disability. For example, kids are encouraged to put two-sided tape between their fingers to see how their fingers stick together and how hard it is to pick up objects or to write. Or they are made to put a rubber ball between their knees then try to walk or run to “experience” a physical disability. Then they are asked to read a page of words that are printed backwards or with the letters jumbled around to “simulate” dyslexia. Probably the most insulting, they take turns putting on funny-looking masks and “experience” what it’s like to be laughed at. And my all-time favorite, they stuff marshmallows into their mouths and try to say a sentence to “simulate” a speech impairment.
All of this is supposed to create better understanding and empathy for their schoolmates who have disabilities. These exercises are so short-sighted and insulting that I believe they do more harm than good. The obvious is that they are designed to highlight differences, not similarities. In highlighting these differences, they sum up the experience of disability as performance deficits in areas where people struggle, but give no opportunity to see people with disabilities as individuals who possess a broad range of unique talents and abilities beyond these areas. Besides, what about the myriad of assistive technologies, equipment and adaptations to the environment that people use to accomplish these tasks at performance levels at or above what people without disabilities can do? These demonstrations also give kids the impression that all people with disabilities can be lumped into one group that experiences these things in the same way. They focus on the disability as the problem, but do nothing to show the unnecessary environmental barriers and prejudice in society that people with disabilities encounter daily. They actually involve “real” people with disabilities who take others through these degrading and misleading exercises. And they are focused on the wrong audience.
What’s needed is a demonstration for ADULTS without disabilities where they are forced to sit through a meeting with a case manager they’ve never met before asking for details about the likely peculiar “behaviors” they exhibit. They would experience the indignity of this 3-hour meeting during which every idea they present for assistive devices, adaptations or personal support services is met with a “No, it's not on our funded priority list.” They would be joined by a “vocational specialist” who would respond to every idea they present for appropriate workplace supports with “I don’t think ‘CARF’ will allow that goal” or “none of the other 'participants' are doing that, so we don’t want the others to think we’re giving any ‘special’ favors.” They would be told that a performance goal that targets 90 or 100% is not allowed, since it’s outside the standard “guidelines” that expect that the majority of people with disabilities won’t perform at that level. After the meeting they would be asked to sit and wait for their ride to pick them up. It will be at least a 30-minute wait, and it will arrive 10 minutes late. They would board the van and experience being driven around for 2 hours on a circuitous route that picks up several other people before arriving at their destination, which would normally be a 15 minute drive. Their destination? A dinner with their family, which was planned for 5 PM, but of course they don’t arrive until well after 6.
Now that’s disability “awareness.”