Repeated Interaction Is the Best Way to Understand Disabled

by Larry P. Johnson

(Reprinted from "The San Antonio Express-News," April 29, 2013.)
(Editor's Note: Larry P. Johnson is an author, public speaker and advocate for people with disabilities. Contact him by e-mail at, or visit his web site at
Let's pretend that you are blind, deaf or confined to a wheelchair for 30 minutes, or an hour, or even for a whole day.
How would it make you feel? What would you learn about being disabled? Well, it's limiting. It's frustrating. It's scary. It's certainly not something you want to have to live with for the rest of your life. Right?
Every year, scores of college campuses, private employers and government offices, even some elected public officials, participate in what are called "Disability Simulation Days," in which non-disabled faculty members, students, employees and city councilmen try to experience disability by putting on blindfolds, plugging up their ears or riding around in wheelchairs. Does it work?
By doing it, are they more aware of the talents, abilities, resources and skills of people with disabilities? Are they more aware of the social discrimination, chronic high unemployment and general feelings of exclusion experienced by persons with disabilities because they have participated in a one-hour disability simulation exercise?
Several years ago, I was in a bicycle accident which resulted in my breaking my hip and collarbone. During part of my rehabilitation, I had to use a wheelchair to get around. Being blind and trying to navigate my way around the rehab center in a wheelchair was extremely challenging. This was no simulation. It was the real thing.
In my view, disability simulation exercises teach the wrong things. They emphasize the barriers, the obstacles, the limitations that confront people with disabilities. Note the phrase "confined to a wheelchair."  It sounds as though the person using a wheelchair is a prisoner. Yet, in reality, the wheelchair actually provides him or her the freedom to get around.
My white cane allows me to travel independently. Cochlear implants and hearing aids help a person who is hearing-impaired to better understand what is being said to them.
If you should lose your ability to see, or hear or walk, you can learn alternative ways to read, to communicate or to travel. You can work, go to school, get married, have a family. The real pain in having a disability is society's attitude of exclusion and discrimination.
Disability simulation exercises tend to perpetuate the myths of incompetence and dependence among persons with disabilities. A better way to build understanding and acceptance of persons with disabilities is through daily repeated interactions, serious conversation and a genuine awareness of the fact that, as human beings, disabled or non-disabled, we are more alike than we are different.
And that's how I see it.