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Blindfolding People Doesn't Help Them Understand Blind People

A recent study shows blindness simulations may not be a good idea for sighted people who work with the blind.

by Ben Richmond
Jan 15 2015, 11:00am

​Image: ​Jason Wilson/Flickr

​Sometimes walking a mile in someone else's shoes just puts you a mile further away from understanding his or her experience, or so a stu​dy out of the University of Colorado-Boulder could lead you to believe. Researchers there found that people who experienced simulated blindness were then more likely to perceive the blind as less capable of functioning independently.

"Disability activists have long argued that simulations give a falsely negative view of disability," the study's lead author, Arielle Silverman, told me.

Silverman, a PhD candidate at CU-Boulder's Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, is blind. She had noticed that people who've never met a blind person tended to have better attitudes towards blind people than those who said they've interacted with blind people. She wasn't surprised when the study found that people who wore blindfolds as part of a simulation came away with worse attitudes towards those with disability than those who weren't blindfolded.

More than 100 college students participated in the study. Some were blindfolded and asked to perform tasks like walking across a room or down a hallway, fill a glass from a water pitcher with a closed spout, or sort coins.

Silverman told me that after the study, 53 percent of blindfolded participants rated blind people as less able to live independently than sighted people, compared with 34 percent of those who were not blindfolded.

Being blindfolded led subjects to believe that blind people can't do tasks as well

"Participants' attitudes were harmed because the blindfolded experience led them to believe that blind people cannot perform activities as well as people with normal vision," Silverman said. "While all participants tended to have this belief, it was more intense among the participants who had just simulated blindness."

It's more than just a matter of snide or condescending attitudes. There's a discriminatory element at work here that the growth of enabling technologies throws into relief. Assistive te​chnology that allows people with visual impairments to use a computer, which is pretty much the essential skill for a good number of jobs, is now available off the shelf.

"Blind people still experience discrimination in many jobs even though technologies and techniques now exist to allow people to perform well in those jobs without sight," Silverman said. "For example, a blind person can be an elementary school teacher quite effectively in partnership with an assistant to help with written work. However, many blind people who apply to become teachers are dismissed out of hand because they cannot see."

"Similarly, simulation participants thought a blind person would be less able to live on their own (even though hundreds of blind people live independently or head families), and this belief could contribute to custodial forms of discrimination."

I have a distinct memory of my sister and I leading each other around wearing blindfolds and claiming that we were learning what it was like to be blind, which makes sense, enough, for children to do. What's weird is that "blindness simulations" are still used as educational tools, Silverman told me, even used to train teachers and professionals who will work with people visual impairments. Not only is there a lack of evidence that they benefit relations between people with and without disabilities, there's now evidence that they do the opposite.

"I would urge anyone considering running a simulation to first seek feedback and collaboration with people who are part of the disability community," Silverman told me. "In my view, any educational exercise about disability should be guided first and foremost by people with disabilities, and these individuals should be front and center in delivering the exercise to students. If simulations are used at all, they should be crafted so as to present participants with a balanced perspective on the positive, negative and neutral aspects of having a lifelong disability."