For one of our classes this semester, we were asked to engage in a disability simulation assignment. The purpose of this assignment was to develop an empathic perspective of what it might be like to be challenged by having an exceptionality or difference in the classroom environment. On the first day of class, we each received an envelope that indicated the difference or disability we would be given the opportunity to “experience” throughout the course. One of us received “LGBT” and was given a rainbow bracelet; the other received “hearing impairment” and was given an earplug. We were instructed to use these implements to help us “experience” these differences on “disability days” throughout the course. Although we know our instructor had good intentions with this assignment, we were both extremely uncomfortable with the idea of reducing someone’s entire identity to a single simulation experience.
How can what amounts to a game of pretend enlighten a person about something that has shaped my entire life? Of course, I realize there are several people and organizations out there that are trying to do their best to use simulation activities to create positive change. But at the end of the day, the temporary glimpse into disability that such exercises provide are just that — temporary. It is simply impossible to fully immerse yourself in another person’s being.Emily Ladau
Simulations do not dig into the root of discrimination, nor do they do justice to a person with a lifetime of experiences alongside disability and difference. We were wary that this type of simulation might lead to empathy (or worse – sympathy) but not to a deeper understanding of disability/difference. We recognize that our privilege affords us the ability to remove ourselves from this experience as we so choose; we can decide, at any given point, to disconnect physically, mentally, or emotionally – especially when things get tough. People who identify with our assigned disability/difference cannot simply ‘take off’/’turn off’ their identity. Yet in this case, we can.
The socially constructed categories of ‘LGBTQIA+’ and ‘Hearing Impairment’ are complex, incredibly diverse, and non-homogenous – every individual’s experience is unique to them. As a result, we chose to approach this assignment by learning alongside authentic personal narratives. The purpose of our altered process was to avoid identity appropriation, as making ‘blanket’ generalizations are exceedingly problematic. We shared what we learned via our collected narratives; existing alongside them, but not assuming them. In our efforts to NOT reproduce harmful stereotypes, other, make assumptions, portray experiences as tokenistic, devalue/diminish/trivialize someone else’s lived experiences, we have learned the following about disability and difference.
Ten Things We Have Learned About Disability and Difference
(1) Someone’s identity should not be defined by what is “different” about them. We need to resist the temptation to classify other people based on their disabilities or their challenges. We should focus instead on their abilities and the ways we can help them realize those abilities.
(2) It is not anyone’s job to educate us about their identity. Asking or expecting someone to constantly explain their disability/difference is placing a hugely unfair burden and responsibility on their shoulders.
(3) We need to educate ourselves on specific disabilities. It is our job, as teachers, to recognize what we do not know and to make an effort to learn by reading, reaching out to experts, and taking part in professional development opportunities.
(4) It’s okay for students to do things differently. Fair and equal are two different things. We need to strive for equity – providing students with what they need to be successful so that everyone can receive what they need as an individual to thrive and to be successful.
(5) Inclusive practices don’t only benefit students with exceptionalities, but all students. Universal strategies (including ‘Tier 1’ interventions) such as sensory regulation, visual schedules, and social stories can benefit all students. When supportive efforts are solely focused on students with exceptionalities, it can lead to further segregation.
(6) Don’t equate challenges with limitations. All students will have challenges and it is our job to support them and help them find ways to overcome those challenges. We should never put limitations on what our students can do.
(7) Each student has a unique set of learning needs. This includes students who have the same disability. For example, not all students with ASD will need the same accommodations in order to be successful in the classroom. Our students know what they need better than anyone else, so let’s not forget to ask them and keep them involved in conversations about their learning.
(8) We need to ensure that we consistently bring in resources that provide inclusive and diverse representations of students. Students need to see themselves positively represented in our classrooms and our curricula. This is vital for students to develop a positive self-concept, which has huge effects on their overall mental health.
(9) We need to create safe classroom spaces by using inclusive language. This means using the pronouns students prefer as well as being able to talk to students about using inappropriate language (ie. that’s so gay, the R-word, etc).
(10) Although we often think about the ways we make adaptations for students, it’s important to recognize the multitude of ways our students are constantly accommodating us. For example, when students with hearing impairments do their best to lip read (even though only 30% of English language can somewhat clearly be read on the mouth), they are accommodating us. When a student who identifies as transgender feels the need to explain their identity/preferred pronouns, they are accommodating us. When a student with ASD uses self-stimulating behaviors to help themselves self-regulate (in a classroom environment that may be over or under stimulating), they are accommodating us.