Disability Simulations: promoting empathy or pity?

I recently read an article on BBC News (‘Not just a game- Is it right to ‘recreate’ disability?’) about the growing number of apps that allow non-disabled people to ‘experience’ being disabled.  The article presented a number of recent games that simulate disabilities and has made me wonder:  what is the current state of disability simulations and how are they used? What are the positive and negative aspects of disability-related games and simulations? What is the purpose of these new simulations? To simulate the disability experience, to examine the reality of disability or to show how to resolve the disadvantages experienced in society? depression_quest

[Depression Quest Simulation]

My first experience with a disability simulation was during my PhD where I used Sim-dis, a collection of software that simulates aspects of disability, developed by JiSC. These simulations were developed to be used for training and awareness raising activities and for teaching student in areas where an understanding of disability is required. I remember I was expecting to have one of those moving, powerful and ‘eye opening’ experiences, but it was nothing like that. I did not gain a better understanding of what life with a disability entails- I just got a glimpse of how visually impaired people would access the overly cluttered website I was learning to design as part of that particular module. However, what the simulation has achieved was that it made me think that there is a lot more to disability than running around with a blindfold for a while, or switching your computer screen off and trying to navigate through a website. Since then we have moved on from simulations of disability experiences such as completing tasks while covering eyes or sitting in a wheelchair. Webaim have created a number of simulations that show the impact of certain designs and web services on users. These include screen reader, low-vision, dyslexia and distractibility simulation but they are quite old and do not reflect the current state of disability or assistive technology.

distractability_webaim_sim[Webaim distractability simulation]

A more recent example is Braille Institute’s VisionSim app for smartphones was designed to allow people with healthy vision to experience the world through the eyes of a person experiencing one of nine degenerative eye diseases, including macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma and cataracts. braille

[Vision free app]

Criticisms of disability simulation reach far beyond the limitations of simulating a ‘real’ disability. Critics argue that in showing people the negative and difficult experiences of disability in such way, simulations reinforce the medical model of disability. But what are the positive aspects of disability-related games and simulations in the context of emerging paradigms of disability studies? I raised this question to Dr Christopher Bailey, from AbilityNet ,  one of my colleagues who has been working in the field of accessibility for over 10 years  and asked him to share his experiences of using disability simulations.   Q: What is your personal experience of using disability simulations?

‘I have been working in the field of web accessibility for nearly ten years now, and I do believe that disability simulations have a place to play in an educational context. I have used disability simulations in a variety of contexts,  when I worked in academia, I have repeatedly used the Webaim simulations as part of accessibility awareness raising events for a EU-funded research project that offered digital services to web designers and SMEs with websites’. These were very well received by participants. I also use simulations as part of a tutorial session for a User Experience Design course. and feedback from the students was positive as they felt it made them appreciate and better understand the difficulties some people have when using the web.’

Q: Have you used disability simulations in a non-educational context, and if so, what was your experience?

I have found that there is less need to use them in a industry context; for example when we run accessibility testing sessions for clients with users who have a range of disabilities. We always encourage clients to come along and observe. They find it interesting to see the different ways users interact with the web, but are often disappointed when they see how some people, particularly screen reader users, can struggle to complete tasks on their website. I don’t think we could have achieved the same goal if we just replaced the live observations with disability simulations. I think observing users first-hand is perhaps the most powerful motivational tool and is more effective than simulations. I think it was Professor Helen Petrie who called this the ‘lightbulb effect’.  This experience demonstrated to me that simulations can help raise awareness of the needs of people with disabilities and can motivate designers and developers to implement techniques to support these users. I think it is important to make it clear when presenting them to users, that they are designed to simulate the effect a disability can have when using the web, and NOT the disability itself.’


I personally believe there is a big difference between putting on a pair of oven gloves or a blindfold (simulating the disability) to simulating the effect of the disability on your interactions with the environment or technology.  I don’t think a simulation or a game can ever give the true picture of the experience of living with a disability, but I this doesn’t necessarily mean that they elicit pity. I believe that a well-designed simulation (and i know this concepts deserves its own blog post) can instil empathy, but empathy  does not equate with acceptance.

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