Non-disabled people should listen to the wishes of disabled people, rather than trying to gain “experience” of disability
I’ve only just caught up with the Community Care article on Bupa care home staff who were trained to become more aware of their clients requirements using simulation exercises such as being blindfolded and using a wheelchair.
While these kind of exercises do provide limited benefits in terms of understanding access, they are based on the medical model and reinforce negative stereotypes and myths.
Anyone who is put in a situation for the first time will lack the experience, skill and expertise necessary to cope with it. That applies to everything from blindness to windsurfing. It is therefore dangerous and arrogant to allow people to assume they can understand blindness after wearing a blindfold for 30 minutes, when we would not assume someone would be a good windsurfer after half an hour trying it.
For disabled people, their impairment is often not the main cause of concern. That’s more likely to be the environment, attitudes and social barriers they face as disabled people. This is why proper social model training for everyone is a much more preferable training method at all levels to enable them to gain an insight and not play at being disabled.
There is a more worrying side of simulation exercises, which is a fetishising of impairment. Eager staff taking part in such training often get to pick which impairment they wish to simulate and have fun with it. While in their supposed vulnerable states, colleagues may have fun with them, for example tipping them out of the wheelchair or having wheelchair races. Ethically, it seems to me as uncomfortable as white people “blacking up” to understand the concepts of racism or men dressing up as women to understand sexism.
But when it comes to disabled people it seems it is okay to enjoy doing it. For example, non-disabled people are now encouraged to try wheelchair basketball and wheelchair racing and may boast about how easy or difficult it was, as if it gives them an understanding of what it is like to be a disabled person.
You do not need to experience my life to know how you can support me in meeting my needs, wishes and desires. It only needs respect and an ability to listen.
Simon Stevens is chief executive, Enable Enterprises