I was excited when I saw this article about a Minnesota elementary school holding a Disability Awareness Week:
I've been volunteering at a local elementary school for 5 years, and when I was Ms. Wheelchair Florida (2005) I spoke to thousands of children around the state. Helping kids learn about disability, and about difference and diversity in general, is close to my heart. So I was disappointed as I read this article to see that the group of special ed teachers who designed the week-long curriculum probably did more to introduce or reinforce misleading stereotypes about disability than to dispel them. You guessed it: they played Gimp For A Day.
Students were first read a story about living with disabilities. Next, they traveled around to different stations that featured modified games, sensory helpers, school supplies and athletic activities. ...
When students would sit in the wheelchairs and try to go around cones, many struggled with the task. The students would often try to put their feet on the ground to maneuver the chairs, saying “it’s too hard.” But teachers were patient and gave them pointers.
... Another station featured modified scissors, crayons, pencils, books and computer mice and keyboards. ... [The third-graders] got easily frustrated with a device that had one movable side of a pair of scissors and the other half was secured in a small ramp. It’s used by students who aren’t able to put their fingers in a typical pair of scissors. Another pair would spring back to open the shears.
And so forth.
When thinking about how to raise awareness and promote understanding, it's natural for us to think, "If only they could walk a mile in my shoes..." (pun intended). Putting able-bodied people in wheelchairs, or blindfolding sighted people, or giving hearing people earplugs -- these seem to be logical ways to help people without certain challenges understand what it's like for people who do have them. And these techniques are used all over the world, in every kind of educational and training setting, including in many special education graduate programs.
While Gimp For A Day activities are meant to foster understanding and compassion, people (adults and children) more often come away with pity and/or reinforced stereotypes. The problem is that such activities only mimic the surface of the experience of people with disabilities. Without context or depth of experience, they are bound to fail.
Let's use "taking a spin in wheelchairs" as an example. Using a wheelchair (manual or powered) effectively takes hard work and practice. Wheelchairs are custom-built to each user's body and abilities; even a slight change in the height of the seat or angle of the wheels can make a difference in comfort and ease of use. When I get a new wheelchair, it takes weeks for my brain and body to adapt. But eventually it does adapt, and my chair becomes a natural extension of my body, rarely requiring conscious thought. It's simply laughable to expect someone who has never used a wheelchair in their life to understand that by "taking a spin." Inevitably, just like the students in the article, people find the wheelchair frustrating, difficult, limiting.
An able-bodied person who finds themselves suddenly strapped in a chair is naturally going to feel "confined." But for me, my wheelchair is my freedom; without it, I'd be stuck laying in bed or sitting in whatever chair someone put me in. I remember that feeling as a child, the frustration of being put on the living room sofa to watch tv with my cousins, then being left behind when they all ran outside for the ice cream truck. My first wheelchair was simply a revelation: it was freedom. That kind of context is entirely lost in Gimp For A Day activities. Instead, participants walk away thinking, "Wow, that was really hard -- I could never do that every day! People with disabilities are so courageous/strong!" Or, worse, "Wow, that sucked. I'd hate to be in a wheelchair... it would be so frustrating/sad/hard. Life must really suck for people with disabilities!" Those thoughts may not be conscious, but the impressions and conclusions (even if only on a subconscious level) are nearly unavoidable.
Disability self-advocates protest Gimp For A Day activities in every corner of the country on an ongoing basis. The key isn't just to point out why this approach is so harmful, but to suggest alternatives that actually do promote understanding, connection, inclusion, and acceptance. The best way that I know to do this is simply by getting people with and without disabilities into the same room and opening a space for conversation. Getting people to a place where they feel comfortable asking questions (much easier with children) and then answering those questions honestly and accurately is the best way to share our experiences. This allows us to provide context, to communicate ambiguities, to correct misconceptions. It allows us to connect as human beings, as individuals with unique strengths and challenges.
I'm glad that the folks at Redtail Ridge Elementary School want to create an inclusive community, but hopefully next time they'll have actual people with disabilities help shape their curriculum. We wouldn't expect a group of white people putting other white people in blackface and sending them out on the streets for a few minutes to reveal anything about the experiences of African-Americans (in fact, we'd find it insulting and offensive); likewise, expecting "a spin in a wheelchair" to accurately convey even a slice of the physical, emotional, and social realities of the experiences of people with disabilities is short-sighted and ultimately damaging.