‘Disability Awareness Week’, Amador Valley High School, Pleasanton, California

‘Simulation exercises’ ~ are you just having a laugh?

I know I said that my next post will be on sex and relationships — please be patient, I’m still working on it! However, I came across this article online from The Independent [Ireland] newspaper and I thought I’d share my views on simulation exercises and disability. I wrote the following as an essay assignment in university in 1998 — I reproduce it here, as although it is twenty three years old, it is still very much relevant today:

‘Simulation exercises’ in disability awareness training sessions.

These exercises reinforce rather than expose the limitations of conventional individualistic approaches to disability.

Simulation exercises are commonly used in colleges, also by professional bodies who have regular contact with disabled people — such as social workers, physiotherapists etcetera and by organisations which are ostensibly run for disabled people (often just for a single impairment group) rather than by disabled people, such as the charities e.g. the ‘Royal National Institute for the Blind’ [R.N.I.B.] and ‘Scope’ [formerly ‘The Spastics Society’].

The supposed rationale for these exercises is to give awareness to non-disabled people of what it is like to be ‘disabled’ by say, sitting and manoeuvring oneself in a wheelchair for a couple of hours or wearing an eye patch or a blindfold to get an ‘understanding’ of being visually impaired.

Many trainers [invariably they are non-disabled themselves] who adopt these practises often argue that simulation exercises are valuable and beneficial in raising awareness to the non-disabled participants of the ‘problems’ with which disabled people face on a daily basis. Many disabled people however argue that these exercises are completely superficial as they are only concerned with one singular aspect of disability i.e. one specific impairment and thus they do not go to anywhere near a complete understanding as to how a disabled person lives, feels emotionally, nor can they accurately replicate a disabled person’s interaction with other people on a day-to-day basis.

Sally French points out that the “experience of disability is all pervading” and thus it would be just as “fruitless” for a man to dress as a woman “in order to gain insights into her experiences” [French S. 1992: p6].
These forms of practises can, in themselves, exclude some disabled people — for example, a person with a hearing impairment who lip reads would be disadvantaged in the wearing of the blindfold exercise.

Likewise, a wheelchair user would of course be excluded from the ‘negotiating the stairs using crutches’ role-play exercise.

Many disabled people also argue that because these simulation exercises are usually treated as a fun game and are often exciting for the participants involved, they are consequently an insult to people who really are blind, deaf or a wheelchair user [or whatever]. Many disabled people feel that these exercises are degrading with non-disabled people having fun at their expense.

Simulation exercises are especially insulting because the participants can go on leading their ‘normal able-bodied’ lives after the exercise whilst disabled people don’t have such luxury of choice, as they [usually] remain disabled for the rest of their lives.

Simulation exercises, by their very nature, can usually only deal easily ‘mimicked’ impairment. That is, those impairments which virtually anyone can act out — complicated impairments such as epilepsy and autism or hidden impairments such as dyspraxia would not be appropriate impairments to copy in a simulation exercise.

By focussing upon one single type of impairment, the participants do not get anywhere near to accurately understanding what disability means to many people. There is no such thing as ‘the disabled’ — there is no single homogenous group, for even within a single impairment group there are vast differences in lifestyles, breaking into a myriad of differing experiences
in terms of gender, sexuality, class, culture, race, age, education etcetera.

These exercises ignore the fact that everyone’s life experiences as disabled people differ enormously. Disabled people who happen to share the same impairment labelling may also feel differently about how they view disability. Some may be politicised and may therefore understand their disability as a social construction of oppression and discrimination by society, whilst others may still understand their impairment as one of personal individual tragedy.

There may be also great differences with people who are born with their impairments and those that become disabled in their later years. Those are born disabled will more than likely have developed sophisticated coping strategies to deal with everyday practical obstacles or attitudinal barriers etc.

Simulation exercises shifts the focus to a personal tragic model of impairment rather than a social model of disability — they are often very negative, focussing upon limitation and inability. In contrast, as French points out, disabled people can often be viewed as “superhuman and heroic”, performing extraordinary physical feats and overcoming seemingly impossible problems and dilemmas [French S. 1992: p5].

Paradoxically disabled people are perceived as either being pitiable, helpless and reliant upon others or they are the ‘super crip’ who overcome all challenges with a cheerful disposition. Thus the exercises merely reinforce the false and misleading stereotypes by which a non-disabled society views disabled people.

However, I think it is important at this juncture to stress that I am not arguing that individual experiences are not important, they are. Indeed, it can be argued that observing how individual disabled people live their lives in the community can be extremely useful in understanding issues of inequality and exclusion — for example, architects observing how wheelchair users or people with visual impairments cope [or otherwise] in public buildings would be invaluable training.

Likewise, for disabled individuals to record their experiences say, on a video, would be an invaluable resource for students and those working in the social work or medical professions. Also some exercises, which raise disability awareness, may in fact be of great benefit to disabled people.

For example, the teaching of the correct procedure when guiding a blind person by the arm, or learning that shouting does not help when communicating with someone with a hearing impairment etcetera.
Perhaps the only positive outcome of a simulation exercise might be to raise awareness of inaccessible environments to non-disabled people who might have previously not given access a moments’ thought. But it is debateable as to how much thought this is given to after the simulation exercises.

People who are temporarily impaired, who may use a wheelchair for a couple of months following say, a road accident, quickly realise the importance of dropped kerbs, wheelchair height buttons in elevators and wide doorways etc.

Simulation exercises are usually held in ‘clinical’ or artificial environments i.e. in classrooms or college campuses. Due to obvious implications of safety, plus the difficulties of logistic planning, rarely do the exercises take place in busy shopping centres, on main roads or on buses and trains. Thus, ‘real-life’ situations can rarely be explored.

Simulation exercises also ignore the fact that being disabled can incur extra costs and expenses. Electric wheelchairs, adapted cars and modified homes etcetera are exorbitantly expensive for the majority of disabled people as they are more likely to be either unemployed or on a low income.

As Professor Colin Barnes argues; “there is little dispute that disabled people are more like to be out of work than their able-bodied contemporaries” [Barnes, C. 1994: P63]. The result is that many disabled people struggle on without adequate aids and adaptations, waiting for many months [or even years] for their local Social Services department to provide these or, if their particularly impairment qualifies, have the alternative of trying their luck with a discretionary charity. This also applies to personal care — which is often means-tested, with costs and quality of care varying across the country.

These exercises are also particularly unhelpful in that they do not address the real issue which the disability movement has been consistently fighting to push onto the mainstream political agenda; that disabled people have historically been excluded and marginalised by society in terms of economics, education, transport, housing, health and employment.

In short, many disabled people argue that there has been far too much emphasis upon impairment rather than looking at the issue of rights. As Sally French notes, by way of example, “it is ironic that at the same time as these programmes are being introduced into schools, many disabled children are being educated in segregated establishments” [French S. 1992: p4].

To fully understand the issue of rights and disability, it is necessary to look at the historical roots of disability segregation, oppression and marginalisation. ‘Disablism’ is a relatively new word in the language of sociology, but it has similar roots and causes as racism, sexism and ageism etcetera.

It is now recognised by many academics that for years oppressive disablism has had a major negative impact upon disabled people in a variety of ways, from institutionalisation to negative stereotyping to the subsequent internalisation and lack of self-worth that this brought.

Such experiences and effects were epitomised by Chinnery when he stated: “It is a serious contention that a great majority of the psychological states disabled people suffer from are the product of being discrimina­ted against and feeling inadequate, disillusioned and unable to do any­thing about this.’’ [Chinnery 1994: Vol. 4 №1].

There is a great deal of confusion (even among academic social scientists) with the meanings of ‘disability’ and ‘impairment’. A person could have an impairment[s] and yet not be disabled. For example, a person who wears glasses for reading obviously has a visual impairment, but is not considered disabled since people who wear glasses are not generally discriminated against by society, it is considered a ‘normal’ occurrence.

However, a person with a hearing aid may well face discrimination, by an employer for example and could thus be considered as being ‘disabled’ by that discriminatory employer. Therefore to look at disability in this context, one must equate disability with discrimination and perceive this as a civil [human] rights issue.

Over the last twenty years or so, there has developed two main social theories of disability, namely; ‘the personal tragedy theory’ [now referred to as ‘the medical model of disability’] and the ‘social model of disability’.
In studying the origins of the medical model of disability, one can trace it back to the birth of the Industrial Revolution in the early nineteenth century, when disabled people were confined to the margins of mainstream employment.

It was seen as important for the capitalist class to identify and classify disabled people, as their industrial world grew, in order to distinguish between those who could not work under the new, arduous working practices and those who would not work.

As industry became more and more mechanised and profit orientated in an ever increasingly competitive capitalist market, disabled people found themselves not only unable to work the new machinery, but were regarded as a liability by their employers and society at large.

It was at this point in time that the ‘sick role’ gained its ascendancy in the ideological debates, as did the marginalising of disabled people. The shift towards isolating and stigmatising mentally and physically impaired people was now in progress. Once condemned by the medical profession into the abyss of ‘social rejects’, disabled people found it nearly impossible to regain their sense of worth and independence.

The ‘Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation’ (UPIAS), founded in 1972, subscribed to the view that; “Physical disability is a particular form of social oppression.” UPIAS went further, saying that “disability is imposed upon the individual as a result of the way in which society is organised and it can only be overcome by a radical trans­formation of society” [cited in Swain J. (ed.) et al 1993: p36].

Classification of disability as an ‘abnormality’ inevitably drives a wedge between individuals, rather seeing everyone as having differing means and needs.

The instit­utionalisation of many disabled people into workhouses and later into asylums thus contributed to the idea that disability was not a social responsibility but an individual one.

This has ultimately led to a lack of resources and equal opportunities for disabled people today. Thus, in accepting that as a disabled person one is socially and medically inferior, a lack of belief in oneself will remain and deepen, as well as perpetuating this belief in the wider society.

As ‘disablism’ has only relatively recently been acknowledged by sociolog­ists as a social oppression, it is not surprising to see that it has common parallels to other forms of oppression.

The isolation and lack of equal opportunities for women and racial minorities due to the social structure of the capitalist system, and its ‘divide and rule’ mentality, only serves to accentuate individual and institutional biases.

Indeed, the description of the family as an ‘institution’ has ironic meaning, in that many women feel as trapped as those condemned to psychiatric and disability orientated institutions run by the government.

In contemporary society it is increasingly harder for disabled people to overcome the discriminatory structure of society, as Chinnery states of disablism: “able-bodiest attitudes, policies, practices and procedures dominate the social, health and educational services to an unacceptable extent.”
[1994: Vol. 4 №1]

These concepts of disabled people still predominate in the ‘caring’ sectors (social workers, rest homes etc). The advertising industry working for the large charities such as ‘Scope’, still uses imagery of the helpless victim as a necessary requirement for its fundraising campaigns.

Social workers still view themselves as being in control of their ‘clients’ and doctors still think they know best when it comes to a person’s health and well-being. It is this powerful hegemony of the disabled person being vulnerable to an all-controlling authority that the disability movement has been striving to change.

Thus many disabled people have over the last few years decided to develop and adopt their own programmes for training, using their own terminology and language rather than adopting the practices and terms of the medical establishment.

This independent assertiveness on the part of the disability movement developed greater impetus from 1981 when the British Council of Disabled People was formed, resulting from the International Year of Disabled People. Disabled people began, for the first time, to become organised.
The establishment of ‘Centres for Integrated Living’ and other organisations run solely by and for disabled people started to give a political and social voice to a significant minority in society, which had long been silent and submissive.

As the disability movement developed their own culture and its own language evolved, so did the form of training. Initially the focus was on ‘disability awareness’ — the idea that disabled people were not simply to be hidden away in institutions or hospitals, but real people who had valuable contributions to make in a diverse society.

There was a vital need to re-educate non-disabled people to the realities of disability, to get away from the stereotypes as portrayed in the literary and dramatic arts, by the media and by the charities and government departments. Professionals working with disabled people [doctors, nurses, social workers etcetera] were particularly in need of training and being taught ‘awareness’ of disability issues.

With the campaign for civil rights by the disability movement and the eventual introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act [1995] the emphasis moved from awareness to equality.
Disability Equality Training [DET] was developed by disabled people themselves and its main function was to facilitate and promote the Social Model.

Various C.I.L.s and other disability groups began to provide service training aimed at the specific needs of an organisation or a client group. The training was focused-based upon the principles of inclusion and anti-discriminatory practises. Participation at all levels by the people in the training exercises would become a key element.

Rather than preaching or lecturing, non-disabled and disabled participants would together discuss, analyse and carry out practical activities, which aimed to break own barriers of discrimination.

The importance of language would also be high on the agenda, as would subjects such as media representation [and marginalisation] of disabled people or issues of fundamental rights, such as the right to work or the right to accessible ‘public’ transport.

Within the DET training programme, the primary exercise would be to look at the various discriminating barriers, which are the fundamental causes of disablement — both on the levels of attitudinal, organisational and physical.

The key difference between the DET programmes and the various simulation exercises that are carried out is that DET is generally professional, well planned, orientated towards common goals and values, compared with the ad hoc, divisive and discriminatory simulation exercises.

Simulation exercises may, on the face of them, be well intentioned, but serve little purpose to disabled people and merely state the obvious to the non-disabled participants.

DET is also about empowerment — the empowering of disabled people who may lack independence, assertiveness or just the basic knowledge of services, rights, access to benefits etc. that may otherwise have been previously denied. Often this empowerment will usually lead to a politicisation of individuals [or a group of people] who may previously have acquiesced or unquestioned the position they were in.

It is important for sociologists to recognise that this politicisation and empowerment has far reaching consequences beyond the individual Disability Equality Training sessions. For, whether through direct action [civil disobedience] by groups such as the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network [DAN], pressure groups such as Right Now! or the establishment of C.I.L.s and other major disability coalitions, disability is now an increasingly powerful and influential force in the arena of mainstream politics in Britain.

The introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act [1995] and the establishment of the Disability Rights Commission, though they are not by any means perfect or complete are still, at the very least, important steps in the right direction in terms of rights and anti-discrimination legislation and practises towards enabling disabled people to become equal members of society.

DET is regarded by many people in the disability movement as a way forward to promote the interests of disabled people and break down barriers to inclusion. It has also provided an opportunity for employment for many disabled trainers, who can often command high fees. DET programmes are also a major [if not the main] source of income for many CILs or other disability organisations.

Equality training therefore is a growing business where financial gain for some is potentially high. It is this professionalisation that has caused some concern to some disability activists.

There is a real fear in the disability community that there is an educated, middle class, elite that is not representative of the majority of disabled people. This apparent ‘elite’ are perceived by some to be comprised of ‘professional crips’ i.e. making a living from their impairment.

This sparked a raging debate between members of the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People in the articles “Where Have All The Activists Gone?” -‘Coalition’ magazine [August 2000]. The basis of their arguments, from activists such as Anne Rae in her piece entitled ‘Debate or Divisiveness’ argued that many people in the movement had become complacent after the implementation of the DDA, not wanting direct action, not rocking the boat politically, the suspicion being they were only interested in safeguarding their own futures.

Anne Rae argued; “This is dangerous nonsense which often only ends in trips to Buckingham Palace for gongs for people who advocate the route of appeasement and compromise” [p6: 2000]. The main targets for the wrath of Rae and others were members of the BCODP who were perceived to have “got tired of unsupported struggle and are cosily curled up in front of the telly” [p7: 2000].

The majority of people who are activists in the disability community however disagree with this negative and divisive viewpoint, arguing that non-disabled people, especially professionals in the medical and social work fields have made a good living at the expense of their disabled ‘clients’ for a long time so it is only appropriate that this unfairness is re-addressed.

A perhaps more important and reasonable concern is the fact that anyone can become self-appointed trainers and disability ‘consultants’ without any formal training or regulation.

There is currently no regulatory body to establish codes of practise or to even ensure that the training is run with the principles of inclusion. There is nothing to stop anyone running training courses even if they have little or no understanding or information about the social model.

Others argue that too much regulation would stifle the development and evolution of the training and barring disabled people from running training sessions on the grounds of the lack of their intelligence or their political understanding would go against the fundamental principle of inclusion.

It is also argued that the CILs usually serve a self-regulatory role in terms of their evaluations of their sessions and the continual support of their trainers. Peer support is also an important factor in making sure trainers have all the resources, experience and above-all the confidence they need.

The social model of disability has become such an important factor in the lives of many disabled people that even the charities [who until recently promulgated the medical model so effectively in its fundraising by portraying disabled people as helpless, tragic and victims] have jumped on the bandwagon and are now trying to promote themselves as advocates for rights and independence for their ‘beneficiaries’.

One example of this is the Leonard Cheshire Foundation. An organisation which runs large residential establishments, many activists say are little better than detention centres, now portrays itself as being fully supportive of inclusion and independence. It recently ran a major advertising campaign featuring posters with the internationally recognised symbol of a wheelchair user holding a front door key and the word ‘enabled’ underneath.

Charities have also been keen to set their own agendas in terms of equality training and are making efforts to include disabled people in their planning. But many disability activists argue that they are just mounting a cynical exercise at pretending to be inclusive, for if they really believed in the social model then their organisations would be run entirely by disabled people [or at least they would be in the majority]. Many would argue that their real agenda is still to profit from the discrimination and marginalisation of disabled people.

This leads to another potential problem with which CILs and the disability movement face — that is, incorporation. In a frenetic capitalist economy alliances would perhaps be inevitable for some organisation if they want to keep financially viable, with partnerships of non-disabled people and organisations that may not be as committed to disability rights and equality as the movement might like.

Already, some organisations have had to employ the expertise of non-disabled consultants and advisers.

But aside from these problems [both real and theoretical] there is an overwhelming argument against the practise of simulation exercises in favour of the empowering and ultimately beneficial [for the whole society] programme of Disability Equality Training.

DET generally comprises programmes which are on-going, constantly changing and evolving as the disability community itself is constantly changing and evolving; in terms of its cultural identity, development of its language and its increasing recognition by the politicians.

Therefore, each training session is usually evaluated and assessed [often by research and feedback of the participants] and usually improved upon by each successive session.

It is also important to get a balance of the practical as well as the theoretical. Thus trainers could get participants to explore the inaccessible physical barriers in the surrounding community as well as looking at the theory of the social model.

For example, non-disabled architects may understand the principles of the social model in theory, but might not realise how their profession is generally helping to create disability in practice.

Rather than seeing disability as a ‘personal tragedy and misfortune to those individuals who are unlucky enough to be impaired’ [as implied and reinforced constantly by the simulation exercises], the DET programmes challenges these old negative notions and sees great potential and positiveness in diversity and recognises the power and strength of unity in the face of adversity and prejudice.


Barnes C. ‘Disabled People In Britain and Discrimination’ (2nd edition)
Hurst [1994]

Chinnery, B. ‘The Process Of Being Disabled
Social Work Practise magazine Vol. 4 №1 [1994]

French, Sally ‘Simulation Exercises in Disability Awareness Training’ [handout]
taken from Disability Handicap and Society Vol. 7 (3) [1992]

French, Sally ‘Confronting Disabling Barriers: towards making organisations
Gillman, Maureen accessible

Swain, John [Editor] [Venture Press] 1998

Rae, Anne “Where Have All The Activists Gone?”
‘Coalition’ magazine August 2000
[Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People]

© Kevin Donnellon [first written as an essay for my Disability Studies module for my BA Hons. in Applied Social Sciences at Edge Hill University, 1998]


On my website kevindonnellon.com is a PayPal tab and I will be extremely grateful for any contribution towards me finding an editor and publisher etc to get my autobiography out there. Thank you!




father, husband, socialist, atheist, humanist, Evertonian, disabled, contrarian. kevindonnellon.com

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

Rape: An Unforgettable Performance

Asians Exist Too, You Know (An Open Letter To Vogue)

Her Legs Are Heaven

What I talk about, when I talk about culture, shame and peace


Celebrating 30 Years of ADA While Continuing Forward

Hi, I’m a white woman. And I’m not diversity.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Kevin Donnellon

Kevin Donnellon

father, husband, socialist, atheist, humanist, Evertonian, disabled, contrarian. kevindonnellon.com

More from Medium

The Christmas Sandwich

Woman Wants Permission To Use Her Dead Husband’s Sperm

The Grandparents’ Guide to Psychological Torment

An Open Letter to My Ex-Husband Who Wants to Know Why Our Daughter Doesn’t Shave Her Armpits