Some time ago, an integral part of disability awareness training involved exercises which allowed the participants to experience some aspects of some disabilities. People sat in wheelchairs and were pushed around for a few minutes. Special goggles, which duplicated the effects of different visual disabilities, were passed around and tried.
Now, using the technology of the internet-based virtual reality world Second Life, a Californian psychiatry professor, Peter Yellowlees, has simulated some of the phenomena that people with schizophrenia regularly encounter. A BBC journalist, Jane Elliott, described her experience: “Incessant noise, a constant babble of voices pounding in my head – competing for space in my brain. Some are critical and highly vocal – others urge me to get a gun and end my life. The whole world appears to conspire against me Before my eyes, books and newspapers change their titles to obscene or frightening ones even the floor I am walking (on) falls away from me.”
Many people who have tried using a wheelchair for a short time say that it gave them memorable insights. But many wheelchair users – including me – feel that people walk away (literally) from the exercise with a false impression: sitting in a wheelchair for half an hour doesn’t let you experience the lifetime of permanent exclusions, and the occasional sheer unavoidable discomfort of wheelchair use (although I have occasionally let my friends use my power wheelchair, with chin control, just so that I can watch the panic on their faces as they career, out of control, towards a nearby wall – we all have to make our own entertainment somehow).
As someone who hasn’t experienced schizophrenia, I’d like to have some insight into how it feels. I’d like to say that it’s because I want to have some empathy with my colleagues who have the condition. But if I’m honest, some of my interest is pure curiosity. And there’s the rub: if people use Dr Yellowlees’ work as anything but a part of a serious attempt to understand schizophrenia, then it risks being no more than an internet freak show.