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School's disability awareness event irks some, inspires others

If you have a disability or care for someone who does, you may occasionally feel that non-disabled people lack a true understanding of what it's like to live with the obstacles a disability can present. While businesses and institutions in Wisconsin and other states have made great strides over the past couple decades in improving access and services for disabled people, it can easily be argued that there is much more work to be done.

A University in the southern United States has attempted to bridge the gap in understanding and improve its policies and facilities through a unique program. A recent one-day event matched disabled students with able-bodied faculty members and administrators. In the first half of the day, each able-bodied administrator simulated a disability -- for example, by wearing a cast and riding a motorized scooter -- while accompanying the disabled student. The pairs then discussed the experience over lunch.

The main goal of the exercise is to boost awareness and understanding of living with a disability, possibly leading to improved policies on campus. Participants on both sides of the issue praised the event, saying it led to productive discussions on how the university could improve conditions for disabled people on campus. But the event also drew criticism, some from disabled faculty and students who said it trivialized the experience of living with a disability and fostered pity among the non-disabled participants.

Both interpretations are understandable; no one wants to feel pitied or trivialized, yet too often it seems those in charge of making high-level decisions affecting disabled people fail to understand the struggles of living with an illness, injury or other medical condition that affects a person's ability to work and perform activities that most people take for granted. When the need for financial assistance or other services arises, it's not too much to expect some compassion and understanding from those in charge of granting that assistance. Events like the university exercise, if carried out in a thoughtful and effective manner, could go a long way toward improving conditions for those living with disabilities.

Source: Inside Higher Ed, "Disability Awareness Draws Scrutiny," Carl Straumsheim, March 7, 2013

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