Our service user organisation held its annual conference this
month. We invited an audience of service users, service providers
and voluntary organisations. For the conference, we asked some
managers to spend a day as service users and report back. The idea
was that they would get a flavour of the day services they provide,
and give service users the chance to see that providers aren’t
faceless bureaucrats who just shuffle paper.
All went well until the manager who had spent time in a wheelchair
at a day centre gave her presentation. Several wheelchair users
became angry, feeling that no able-bodied person could represent
their experiences. They felt patronised and insulted, seeing the
exercise as a way to deny disabled people their voice.
I can see their point. From attempts to give social work students
the “disabled experience” by getting them to push each other around
in wheelchairs, or wearing vision-distorting glasses, through to
architects “testing” the accessibility of their buildings by
wheeling themselves about, the mistake has been in thinking that
this is enough to enable professionals to understand disability
Disabled people’s feelings are coloured by years of experience, the
knowledge that their situation is permanent and by a lifetime of
able-bodied people’s reactions. Nothing can accurately replicate
On the other hand, just visiting a day centre for a few hours and
watching what goes on would only leave an objectified impression.
By participating for a whole day, perhaps an able-bodied person
would gain a better experience, which could inform and enhance
their work. It turned out that our volunteer was clear that, had
she really been disabled, what was on offer would not have met her
needs. She saw for herself the limitations of a “traditional” day
Disabled people have more chances to communicate their experiences:
I’m writing this column, for example. So, giving providers a taste
of the services they offer and to let users know that providers
want to understand more fully was, on balance, worth doing.