New Research: “Blindness Simulation” Activities May Do More Harm than Good

SSPS logo

New research findings from the University of Colorado indicate that blindness simulations – intended to be bridge-builders resulting in greater compassion and understanding – can sometimes harm rather than help. According to the authors, simulation activities, and blindness simulations in particular, “highlight the initial challenges of becoming disabled” and thus “decrease the perceived adaptability of being disabled and reduce the judged capabilities of disabled people.”

The lead author is Arielle Silverman, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington in Seattle, who is blind and has experienced a variety of reactions from the public, related to people’s familiarity (or not) with blindness and the capabilities of blind persons.

From Social Psychological and Personality Science

This thought-provoking research, entitled Stumbling in Their Shoes: Disability Simulations Reduce Judged Capabilities of Disabled People, has been published online ahead of print in the November 21, 2014 edition of Social Psychological and Personality Science (SSPS). SPPS publishes short reports of research studies that contribute to an understanding of critical issues in social and personality psychology, written to be accessible to a wide range of audiences. The authors are Arielle M. Silverman, Jason D. Gwinn, and Leaf Van Boven, from the University of Washington, Seattle and the University of Colorado, Boulder.

About the Research

Excerpted from How to worsen attitudes toward blindness – let people give it a try, via Science Codex:

A common claim about getting people to understand one another … is to “walk a mile in their shoes.” But using simulation to walk in the shoes of a person who is blind – such as wearing a blindfold while performing everyday tasks – has negative effects on people’s perceptions of the visually impaired, according to a new paper.

“When people think about what it would be like to be blind, they take from their own brief and relatively superficial experience and imagine it would be really, really terrible and that they wouldn’t be able to function well,” said Arielle Silverman, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle, who is lead author of the paper and blind.

In one part of the study, after simulating blindness by having their eyes covered, participants believed people who are blind are less capable of work and independent living than did participants who simulated other impairments like amputation, or had no impairment.

In another part of the study, participants who were blindfolded said they would be less capable if they personally became blind and slower to adjust to their new world compared with study participants who weren’t blindfolded.

There also are variations on blindness simulations – activities that are implemented with good intentions but that can exploit blindness, said Silverman. These include trust walks, typically used as a group bonding exercise, and blind cafés, where diners are blindfolded and dine in the dark.

Another important consideration when it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of simulations is the fact that the built world and social environments are not designed for people with disabilities.

“A lot of the disability that I experience has nothing to do with not being able to see,” said Silverman. “Instead, it’s because I can’t access something like a poorly designed website, for example. So if there’s a way for simulations to capture how much difficulty is caused by the social environment and the built world, this could improve attitudes and help people understand that those with disabilities are just as competent as they are.”

What are Blindness Simulation Activities?

As a longtime professional in the field of adult low vision and vision rehabilitation, I have participated in countless “blindness simulation” activities.

University-Based Training Programs

Some have been education-based and served as highly effective learning tools for students in my Master’s and Certificate Programs in Vision Rehabilitation Therapy at Salus University. Our students learned to perform – and teach – a variety of daily living skills, including complex meal preparation, under the blindfold in structured laboratory settings.

Dining in the Dark

Daniel Aronoff the Blind Food Critic

Others have been less well-defined “awareness activities,” such as the ubiquitous Dining in the Dark franchise, which I and my friend Daniel Aronoff, New York’s well-known Blind Food Critic, discussed at length in Dining in the Dark: Does Its Mission Succeed? Part 1 and Part 2 after reading an aggressively negative review on the New York Eater blog.

In this case, did the Dining in the Dark blindness immersion experience succeed in its stated goal of providing “a unique sensorial, social, and human experience where guests dine in total darkness and are guided and served by the blind and visually impaired”? I think not; instead, it created confusion, frustration, and even revulsion, in some cases.

Dialogue in the Dark

I had an excellent experience, on the other hand, at the well-designed and executed Dialogue in the Dark, described as

… an awareness-raising social franchising company, offering exhibitions and business training in total darkness and creating jobs for blind, disabled, and disadvantaged people worldwide. The Dialogue exhibition uses blind and visually impaired guides to lead small groups of visitors through a series of darkened galleries that replicate everyday experiences. Without familiar sight clues, visitors learn to “see” in a completely new and different way by using their non-visual senses. It also offers the public an experience that can change mindsets about disability and diversity.

However, before Daniel and I visited the New York installation, we discussed our expectations over lunch, with Daniel expressing doubt about the accuracy of the Dialogue “message” transmitted to the general public:

“I don’t understand Dialogue in the Dark. Instead of learning about blindness, people seem to treat me with either more pity or more admiration afterwards, neither of which I welcome. A woman from my building approached me and said, ‘I saw the exhibit and it was so scary. You must be so brave to live like that!’ I wasn’t interested in attending Dialogue in the Dark before, but now I believe it might be the best way to assess its level of reality and accuracy.”

To this day, I laugh about my bumbling performance in the Dialogue in the Dark exhibition, especially in the simulated subway gallery – but that was the point of the Dialogue experience and the educational discussion that followed. As a result, I acknowledged my own limitations and didn’t generalize my own discomfort (and ineptness) as being representative of the experience of living with blindness. Instead, my takeaway was that I relied almost exclusively on my visual sense and needed to improve my ability to use input from my other senses to function more efficiently and independently.

What made the difference here? Thoughtful, knowledgeable guides and an individualized education component.

More about the Study from Social Psychological and Personality Science

From the article abstract:

Simulating other people’s difficulties often improves attitudes toward those people. In the case of physical disabilities, however, such experience simulations can backfire. By highlighting the initial challenges of becoming disabled, experience simulations decrease the perceived adaptability of being disabled and reduce the judged capabilities of disabled people.

In two experiments, participants engaged in a challenging blindness simulation and afterward judged blind people as less capable of work and independent living than did participants after simulating a different impairment, no impairment, or after merely watching someone else simulate blindness.

Blindness simulators forecast that they would be less capable themselves if blind and that they would adapt to blindness more slowly, highlighting the self-centered nature of judged capabilities of disabled people. The findings demonstrate that experience simulation can sometimes harm rather than help attitudes toward other people’s difficulties.

What’s Your Opinion?

Readers: Have you participated in, or planned, a blindness simulation exercise? If so, what was your opinion? Did the experience change your impressions of, or attitudes about, blindness? Please let us know in the comment section.

Additional Information