Why Your “Disability Awareness” Programs Are Awful

Awful is a harsh word.

But then again, so is ableism.

Here’s what I love about student affairs & higher education (and education in general): We are always looking for ways in which to advance the education, personal growth, and cultural competency of our students. As educators, it is on us to prepare our students to work in a diverse world and, through educating students, work to eradicate discrimination.

Naturally folks desire to host educational programs on the topic of “disability”. This is wonderful! However, it is imperative that you read this blog post before you continue planning.

#1 Rule of Disability Awareness Programs: NO SIMULATIONS
Absolutely no simulations should be used in disability awareness programs.

A disability awareness simulation program looks a lot like this:

  1. Participants walk into a room. An assortment of actions are set upon them – they are placed in wheelchairs, have their eyes blindfolded, wear sound absorption headphones, have their arm tied before their back, and more.
  2. Participates are directed to carry out daily tasks in these conditions.
  3. Afterwards, participants discuss the level of difficulty in carrying out those tasks.
  4. Finally, they sing kum-by-ya, hold hands, and skip through a field of daisies as their minds are enlightened <insert chorus of angelic choir music>

Thanks to you, students are totally enlightened now

Simulations are the most common type of disability awareness programming. And they are awful.

Why are Simulations so Bad?
1. Simulations “reinforce a view of individual deficiency rather than fostering an awareness of ableism as a form of oppression that operates on individual, institutional, and societal/cultural levels” unless very carefully designed and discussed afterwards (Griffin, Peters, & Smith, 2007).

2. These programs perpetuate abelist thoughts by focusing on the negative, i.e. what people with disabilities (PWD) can’t do (Griffin, Peters, & Smith, 2007).

3. This experience reinforces participant fears about becoming disabled and condescending perceptions that PWD should be pitied or helped (Griffin, Peters, & Smith, 2007)

4. Having participants use a wheelchair may reinforce the idea that using a wheelchair is “tragic” (Griffin, Peters, & Smith, 2007).
5. Many disabilities can be managed with accommodations, trainings, and accommodations. Just because you can’t see with your eyes blindfolded does not mean that a person cannot live fully without their sight (Griffin, Peters, & Smith, 2007).

6. Do you really think that spending 30 minutes in a wheelchair can inform you about the daily life of someone in that situation? This “obscures the fact that people live with disabilities all their lives, know how to confidentially get around, and are able to live their independent lives” (Griffin, Peters, & Smith, 2007).

7. These programs only focus on visible disabilities. Ugh. No. Did you know that a majority of PWD college students have invisible disabilities? Such as a cognitive disorder (ex: autism), emotional disorder (ex: depression), or an invisible physical disability (ex: chronic health condition, like asthma). By focusing on visible physical disabilities, you are erasing the experiences of many people. It’s difficult enough to be a college student, attempting to get accommodations for a class, only to be told that “you don’t look disabled”.

8. Also, how do you think it would make students with disabilities feel if they sat in on your program?


Probably a lot like this

Essentially, these programs promote stereotypes and don’t do anything to eradicate discrimination. And that’s awful.

Shouldn’t we try to have students think about these ‘disability experiences’?
Yes, most certainly! But if your social justice program is at the expense of the people it represents so it can educate the masses, then you better just question your life choices.

Griffin, Peters, & Smith (2007) in the book “Teaching for Diversity & Social Justice” recommend that disability awareness programs focus on ableism as a ‘systemic phenomenon’. In fact, the book has a multitude of great ideas and programs already written up. Check out the free preview pages of it on Google Books or pick up the book yourself ($25 digital on Google or $55 ‘you can hold it’ edition on Amazon)

Wait, what is Ableism?
I’m glad you asked!

I like checking out the “Disabled Feminists” website because they have a whole page on the dictionary and academic defintions, as well as deliberate and unintentional examples of ableism.

Academic Definition of Ableism
Ableism is a form of discrimination or prejudice against individuals with physical, mental, or developmental disabilities that is characterized by the belief that these individuals need to be fixed or cannot function as full members of society (Castañeda & Peters, 2000). As a result of these assumptions, individuals with disabilities are commonly viewed as being abnormal rather than as members of a distinct minority community (Olkin & Pledger, 2003; Reid & Knight, 2006). Because disability status has been viewed as a defect rather than a dimension of difference, disability has not been widely recognized as a multicultural concern by the general public as well as by counselor educators and practitioners. (Smith, Foley, Chaney)


“Like other “-isms,” ableism can be insidious, and so closely woven in society that people without obvious physical or mental disabilities might not even think about their ableist attitudes and the ableist structure of their society. For example, people with use of their legs may not consider how difficult navigation can be in a wheelchair. Albeism also penetrates language and society; terms like “weak,” “lame,” and “retarded” are all ableist, and widely used, even by people who are sensitive to other forms of discrimination.” (WiseGeek)

Not *everything* you do is wrong, but unless you're something supernatural, chances are you probably have done, are doing, and will do some ablelist things.

Not *everything* you do is wrong, but unless you’re something supernatural, chances are you probably have done, are doing, and will do some ablelist things.

Okay, So I Know What Ableism Is…What if I Maybeee Don’t Quite Understand Disability Issues?
Dude. That is (unfortunately) perfectly normal, and if you told me you were an expert I’d call you a liar. In fact, it’s very cool that you admit a lack of understanding, especially as you may be planning an awareness program.

The truth of the matter is our understanding of social issues is limited to our personal life experiences and whatever we are socialized to believe (i.e., the media would have you believe that mental illness=crazy and/or that a ‘real’ disability means you use a wheelchair).

Even if you have a disability(ies), you are still have to work to understand the myriad of disabilities and life experiences out there.

If you don’t have a disability, your identity is probably known as “able-bodied” and you have “abled privilege”.


Some Resources on Better Understanding Disabilities

  1. GoogleDrive folder “Resources on Disability Issues” of uploaded PDFs of articles on disabilities in higher education
  2. A reference list of scholary articles (also in the GoogleDrive) “Research on Disability Issues in Higher Education
  3. At-a-glance handouts to better understanding disabilities and ableism here and here.
  4. My tumblr blog “Social Justice Resources for Student Affairs” under the tags disability
  5. College Students Speak: A Survey Report on Mental Health by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has excellent statistics.
  6. Your university disability office (sometimes goes by different names) for resources specific to your student population

Final Thoughts
1. Woohoo for wanting to create disability awareness!
2. Just don’t contribute to systemic oppression whilst you do it
3. Focus on ableism when structuring disability awareness programming
4. There are so many resources out there for you! Books, internet, your own disability specialists, and your students. Use them as your foundation.
5. Thanks for working towards dismantling ableism.

If you’re working on cool non-ableist disability awareness programs at your school, please share them with me in the comments or at @NikiMessmore on Twitter!


Always recognize and embrace your privilege, folks.


Lalvani, P., & Broderick, A. A. (2013). Institutionalized Ableism and the Misguided “Disability Awareness Day”: Transformative Pedagogies for Teacher Education. Equity & Excellence in Education, 46(4), 468-483.

Laura Smith, Pamela F. Foley, and Michael P. Chaney, “Addressing Classism, Ableism, and Heterosexism in Counselor Education”, Journal of Counseling & Development, Summer 2008, Volume 86, pp 303-309.


One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s