A growing number of apps and software give non-disabled people an “experience” of being disabled. But do they serve any useful function?

Low-tech training with scarves over eyes and oven gloves on hands have traditionally assisted people in understanding what some disabilities feel like. Away from the practical, there are an increasing number of computer simulations which recreate disabilities previously incapable of being recreated. But does becoming disabled for a day give authentic insight, and is it respectful?

You are standing on the edge of a busy playground where children are shouting, and singing the alphabet song. As you move closer to them, your vision gets fuzzier and the noise gets distorted and sharp. “Now I know my ABC…” starts to ring painfully in your ears and the trees begin to move of their own accord.

That’s what happens to players of the interactive online game Auti-sim, a creatively geeky play on the word “autism”.

The web-based simulator was designed with help from a specialist advisor and aims to show how a child might experience sensory overload in a busy playground.

“People were shocked by Auti-sim because they tried it and realised what a huge impact sensory issues can have,” says Robyn Steward, who is herself on the autism spectrum and runs workshops about the subject. She says that, when people think about sensory overload, they tend to focus on single events like visiting a supermarket or crossing a road but should think beyond that, like the game does.

It builds up the full picture and Steward says the game helps players appreciate the feelings those on the spectrum can have.

“What people don’t always realise is that as soon as you wake up, your brain is taking in information from the senses and this can have a cumulative impact over time.”

The suffocating noise and visuals of Auti-sim make players want to retreat to the fringes of the playground. Designer Taylan Kay told the Ars Technica website that the game saw teachers of children with autism “displaying behaviours and reacting in ways that they have seen children in real life do”. A recent online film, Sensory Sensitivity, from the National Autistic Society, attempts to do similar in film form, rather than as a game.

Other disabilities which are hard to physically recreate have been attempted in interactive simulations too.

Depression Quest, a text adventure game, asks players to negotiate a virtual life with mental health difficulties where positive options are crossed out and unavailable to select, depending on how low their character is feeling. And CBBC’s website puts you in the shoes of four children with dyslexia in Try Being Me – My Dyslexic Mind.

Critics say that simulations are counter-productive. They worry that having taken part in a simulation exercise, non-disabled people will believe they fully understand disability. They say that unless you are disabled and live with the knock-on consequences like unemployment, pain and prejudice, it doesn’t give a true picture.

Robin Steward disagrees. She says: “When you fly a plane simulator, its similar to what it would be like to fly a plane but you know that if you were doing it for real, it would be different. People know that what they are seeing and hearing is a simulation, and is just there to provide information and ideas.”

Physical disabilities are easier and cheaper to recreate than autism and other developmental disorders, and there is a long tradition of devising home-made ways of doing so.

Delegates at disability training events have reportedly been asked to pick up small objects whilst wearing mittens to impair fine movement like people with cerebral palsy experience. Others have had their legs tied together to recreate mobility problems.

Elsewhere, scouts doing their disability awareness activity badge are invited by the association website to “make a sandwich using only one hand, or draw a picture using only your feet to hold the pen.”

Since the late 80s, some disabled people and groups have been vocal on why they don’t like simulation of disability as a tool for learning or research.

“It is not seen by [disabled people] as a solution to the problems we face,” says Nicholas Watson, professor of disability studies at the University of Glasgow.

He adds that many disabled people feel their lived experience can’t be considered too important if people feel they get more from trying it out for themselves.

When people do try it for just a few hours, says Watson, the difficulties can elicit pity rather than a constructive response. “People don’t blame what they should blame, the inaccessible environment and the poor design, they blame the problems on the fact that you have to use a wheelchair or that you can’t see.”

When he was able to walk, Watson recalls he went on a trip to Glasgow in a wheelchair for a learning exercise. He reports feeling frustrated and angry, learnt nothing useful, and admits that he cheated. “I got stuck trying to get out of Tesco’s, so I got out and pushed the chair… there were a few raised eyebrows.”

But hearing about disability problems second-hand doesn’t always have enough impact. In a campaign promoting better travel, the UK’s biggest sight-loss charity, RNIB, asked bus drivers to don blindfolds or special simulation spectacles before boarding buses as passengers.

Spokesperson Lindsay Armstrong says it has proven “more tangible and practical than simply just talking about different eye diseases. People often say how they would feel if it were them and it can open the door to a great degree of empathy.”

BBC News, Ouch