Empathic Modeling/Disability Simulation

Our Stance on Empathic Modeling/Disability Simulations/Immersive Experiences

We often field questions from well-meaning students, faculty, staff and practitioners who are looking for a “disability experience” and ask to borrow a wheelchair or physical device or wear goggles or do some other type of disability simulation in order to experience what it is like “to have a disability.”  There are a number of situations where borrowing a wheelchair or physical device is an appropriate request, specifically for immersion experiences, as defined below, or as a child where it is developmentally appropriate.  However, our position at DRES is that the “disability experience” cannot and should not take place on this superficial level.  There are a number of reasons for this:

  1. Immersion Experiences Are Different Than Borrowing a Wheelchair
    • In other immersive experiences, like taking part in a Pride event, attending a religious service or interacting with another culture, the emphasis is placed on interacting in an environment which a person is not a member, and exposing themselves to their own expectations, bias and stereotypes, while developing awareness of other opportunities outside of their own lived experiences.  In borrowing a wheelchair or other disability simulations, there is no interaction with the culture of disability or individuals and it trivializes the importance of what is gained through that exposure and immersion.  There are many disability-related events and organizations through DRES, the university, or in the community that an individual can participate in order to be exposed to disability.  
  2. Borrowing a wheelchair is different from a “disability experience”
    • Here at the University of Illinois, the number of students who have “invisible” or “hidden” disabilities account for approximately 75-80% of our population, so borrowing a wheelchair completely misses the spectrum of what disability can be for an individual, and trivializes all the ways in which disability affects every day experiences and continuous development.  In addition, being able to get in, out and “take off” the disability when the wheelchair is turned in is in and of itself, a barrier towards a truly impactful experience of most wheelchair users.
  3. Borrowing a wheelchair, physical device, or using a disability simulation places disability as an “other” in cultural Immersion conversations
    • Disability, in almost all contexts, is not a condition that can be taken “on or off,” placing it similar to other cultural identities such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or religious affiliation. One cannot pretend to be a person from a different race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Disability is comparable in that an attempt to “simulate” a disability can be perceived as deeply prejudicial and hurtful.
  4. The “positive effects” from a “disability experience” are privilege
    • Some people may say that they have experienced positive effects from their “disability experience”.  Unfortunately, this perception is very common in cultural competence trainings as well.  People often state they have “learned” or “enjoyed” the experience when in actuality, their beliefs have become more biased and prejudicial, which are now less likely to change because they believe they have been “changed.”  A commonly heard phrase can be, “I understand now what ______ is like,” which is an impossible statement based in privilege.  It is impossible to understand what is like to be a person of color, a person of a different gender, a person of a different religious affiliation or a person of different ability if you are not.

For Example….

A student asked to borrow a wheelchair to “understand what it is like to be a person with a disability” and wanted to videotape the experience.  In the video, the student stated they felt as though they had a “positive experience” and “anyone can master having a disability in as little as three days.”

What Can I Do?

If you are interested in increasing your awareness regarding disabilities, yet do not know how to do so, we encourage you to peruse our vetted resource guide.  There are books, movies, blogs, and videos in areas of disability you may not have considered before-than allow yourself to seek ways of becoming involved in those areas!