Once a year, on the occasion of the European Disability Employment Week (November 14 to 20 this year), many companies and organizations are implementing actions to raise their employees' awareness of disability. An awareness-raising tool is on the rise: role-playing (wheelchair course, white cane course, meal in the dark, learning Braille, sign language, etc.).
However, these practices are criticized, in particular by people with disabilities. Understanding the issues, the possible pitfalls and the impact of such scenarios is relevant to knowing whether such tools are useful, or on the contrary counterproductive, in the fight against validism (discrimination against people with disabilities).
Following a ethnographic survey with associations where people - some with disabilities - develop and animate scenarios to make different audiences think (pupils, employees, students), I propose an analysis of the awareness tools implemented to fight against validism . It is also a question of thinking about their impact on the perception of people with disabilities, and on the changes in attitudes towards them.
Tools criticized by activists
What criticisms have been leveled against this type of sensitization? Spending a few hours in a wheelchair or blindfolded is insufficient to understand the experience of people who experience this situation on a daily basis. Worse, it can be counterproductive if it reinforces validist attitudes of self-pity, or on the contrary of admiration, which create a distance between able-bodied people and people with disabilities (see for example the concept of “Inspiration pornography” created by the journalist, actress, and activist Stella Young to underline the perverse effects of moving advertisements around people with disabilities presented as a source of inspiration).
Another risk is that these situations create a feeling of fear, for example, having to cross a street while blindfolded. These situations can reinforce the representation of disability as a personal tragedy, instead of emphasizing social and environmental obstacles: preconceived ideas about the difficulties of visually impaired or blind people in using IT tools, lack of access for people with reduced mobility in certain workplaces, etc.
To certains, simulations are better suited for people who are themselves experiencing the development of a disability: a visually impaired person who is losing their sight could benefit from awareness raising to fight against their own validism internalized, discover the range of tools available to blind or visually impaired people, and deconstruct the idea that sight is necessary to be happy and successful in life. Others have promoted the development of studies on the conditions under which such simulations could allow create more positive representations people with disabilities.
In order to understand how these sensitizations by simulation can be relevant, I studied the point of view of associative actors concerned by the handicap and which implemented such tools of sensitization. Under the right conditions (and in particular provided that the people concerned are themselves at the center of the system), they promote freedom of speech and exchanges between able-bodied and disabled people. The scenario becomes a ice breaker tool to promote exchanges in a light mode, which can be useful because one of the manifestations of validism is a distance and discomfort able-bodied people vis-à-vis people with disabilities.
How can disability simulations be useful?
These simulations can make it possible to de-dramatize the handicap. If the initial experience of the simulation can arouse reactions of fear (for example in the fact of moving around while blindfolded), the facilitators of the simulations redirect the attention of the participants towards the concrete barriers to accessibility, as well as potential solutions.
Through this approach, they initiate people to conceive of disability on the basis of social and environmental obstacles (lack of access ramp, poorly indicated doors for a visually impaired person), which hinder the inclusion of people with disabilities (the disability is mainly produced by the company, and not by the individual differences of people). This is what has been called since the 1990s the social model of disability, which opposes the medical model disability, conceiving of disability as individual deficiencies which medicine and professionals must seek to remedy.
These scenarios are also an opportunity to highlight the capabilities people with disabilities: for example, blind people in these trainings show their mastery of different computer tools, and surpass the participants in their practice of writing and reading Braille.
Handicap simulations are also useful in that they show which types of aids are appreciable and oppressive. It is a way of passing, through the game and humor, messages on validist attitudes that continue to reinforce the oppression of people with disabilities (miserabilism, paternalistic attitude, exclusion), without rob their interlocutor.
Many disability rights activists have highlighted the various forms of microaggressions of which they are victims follow-up , and which can reinforce isolation some people. The forms of unsolicited help, for example, can reproduce relationships of domination. The challenge is not to put oneself in a position of savior or charity, but to develop friendly interpersonal relationships, where help can be reciprocal, sometimes as simple as giving salt at the table, and where the other learns to understand, by listening, what the concrete obstacles are, which are often less dramatic than what people first imagine (serving yourself at a buffet as a blind person, for example).
These analyzes echo statements by militants of the movement for the rights of people with disabilities, which strongly underline how the simulation must be accompanied by political discourse on validism (analyzing the barriers produced by the environment, prejudices, attitudes of the people around us) to be followed by 'effects.
A few points of vigilance
If these simulations can have a positive impact to change representations, there are still a few points of vigilance. For example, some people denounce a recovery of such awareness-raising tools as a purely event-based and recreational tool (event of team building, obstacle courses, tasting in the dark), which can be done to the detriment of in-depth work on oppressive attitudes and representations.
In the context of large organizations that often need to have a budget dedicated to their actions in the field of disability, it seems important to ensure that the actions financed serve to transform the view of disability. If the challenge is to transform validist representations, it seems important that the simulations remain designed, animated, and give the passwords our persons concerned by disability. Putting the point of view of the people concerned at the center is therefore fundamental for any action that aims to promote their inclusion over the long term.
In addition, if the simulations can be the occasion for occasional meetings between able-bodied and disabled people, it is through several conversations, and the development of real interpersonal relationships that we can further change the outlook on disability. Raising awareness is a tool, but it must be linked to a panoply of other actions (promoting access to higher education, employment, deployment of facilities, job retention schemes, accessibility) to truly enable changes in society.