Simulating Disabilities

When is it OK? When is it disrespectful? My thoughts on a complicated topic

Sheri Byrne-Haber, CPACC

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Woman in teal t-shirt sitting in front of large monitor wearing VR goggles
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

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Simulation is a common but misguided approach to invoking empathy for disability and accessibility-related issues. This is often done in group settings and is incredibly common in training sessions — where participants wear blindfolds or ear plugs, sit in borrowed wheelchairs, or swap their mice for keyboards trying to experience what it means to be disabled.

Where simulation falls short is in five very specific areas that can never, ever be simulated no matter how good your facilitator is or what type of disability they may have:

  1. People simulating disabilities at the end of the session know that the simulation will be over. People with actual disabilities are rarely that lucky.
  2. People simulating disabilities aren’t carrying microaggression baggage from having dealt with years if not decades of being treated as inferior and not worth including in really basic topics like having groceries delivered and applying for jobs.
  3. People simulating disabilities don’t have to deal with the three most common side-effects of a disability. These are depression, chronic pain, and fatigue, any one of which can really mess with a user experience, big time. It takes a little issue that is just slightly annoying and maybe not even worth mentioning for someone without a disability (such as a CVV code having to be reentered when a form submission fails) and turns it into a really big issue.
  4. People simulating disabilities haven’t been continually disappointed by businesses who have repeatedly failed to account for their needs. This causes users with disabilities to get frustrated and angry more quickly than users without disabilities.
  5. It is impossible to simulate a neurodiverse state. You can’t sumulate IDD, epilepsy, ADHD, OCD, autism…

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Sheri Byrne-Haber, CPACC

LinkedIn Top Voice for Social Impact 2022. UX Collective Author of the Year 2020. Disability Inclusion SME. Sr Staff Accessibility Architect @ VMware.