Simulating Disabilities

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

Woman in teal t-shirt sitting in front of large monitor wearing VR goggles
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. It is impossible to simulate a neurodiverse state. You can’t sumulate IDD, epilepsy, ADHD, OCD, autism, or any mental health issues. It’s just not possible

OK, I’m convinced — no empathy building exercises. So what can I do?

What I do instead of simluated disability empathy exercises is show short and powerful videos of people with disabilities talking about their lived experience with a disability in their own words. My two favorites are:

Simulating disabilities as a problem-finding exercise is OK, if done correctly

That’s how I, a person with glaucoma who doesn’t use a screen reader, find and log screen reader bugs in our code. Most people in accessibility are there because they have a disability, or someone close to them has a disability (in my case, both). But no one is ever going to be able to check every single disability category box. And even if they can, two different people with the exact same diagnosis and disability can use different assistive technology and adaptations. So having a team with a broad range of disabilities and learned approaches to assistive technology compensating for disabilities that they don’t have is actually a good thing.

Blogger, disability advocate, nerd. Bringing the fire on ableism. A11y Architect @ VMware. Wheelchair user w/ a deaf daughter. CS, Law, and Business background

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