Teaching Empathy and the Danger of Simulations

content: the limitations of simulating a marginalized experience, how this negatively affects marginalized people, and some suggestions about how to teach and learn without perpetuating these problems.

I know some people are pretty excited about various ways to simulate disabilities (and sometimes other marginalized experiences). I’m not.

Any simulation of any disability is incredibly limited and problematic because it is experienced by someone who does not have that condition.

I edited a workshop for a group that I worked for to replace a simulation for these reasons. The original workshop asked participants to put on oven mitts and attempt to tie their shoes. This simulation is incredibly problematic for reasons that can be generalized to others.

  • the participants were experiencing the simulation as an external factor. rather than being able to feel their own hands but with limited sensitivity or mobility, their hands were impeded by a barrier external to them. If you watch a moving, blurred, camera, you might understand the visual effects of being drunk, but you don’t understand how it feels to struggle to focus your eyes or retain your balance.
  • it was a momentary inconvenience. When a person first becomes disabled, they are often terrified and have only their prejudices and negative reactions of the people around them to inform them about their current situation. They do not experience the acclimatization that comes with time. Neither the acceptance nor integration of a new identity, nor the ways we learn to work with what we have. Going back to the oven mitts, my friends with webbed fingers from a skin condition and immobile fingers from cerebral palsy can put on their own shoes. It might be a little slower than it is for me on a good day, and they might choose to use velcro over strings or a shoespoon rather than progress unaided. They manage. They have a system that works for them as an individual.  Also I can’t play piano.

The end effect is participants might experience shock, fear, and pity. I don’t think this leads to understanding.

Much more important than cultivating pity for the way an able-bodied person perceives limitations, is understanding the social effects on people with disabilities.

So many barriers are not physical or mental aspects of the disability.  Those we are used to, and learn how to live with, even when it’s not terribly pleasant. Often barriers are the stigma, prejudice, and discrimination perpetuated by an inaccessible society.  I might be able to figure out how to get my shoes on, but if I’m required to stand all day, I won’t be able to hold down a job because my body can’t do that.

There are no simulations for being harassed in public because micro- and macro-aggressions add up and build on our insecurities, our fear for our safety and self-doubt imposed by the ubiquity of ableism. How can you simulate being unable to get jobs because they won’t meet your basic needs and making compromises that sabotage your health in order to get by.

We can’t simulate the positives either.  Creative people might use arts to convey their experiences, but in the end we know you only see the effects, and not the depths of what we see and hear and feel.

Do not attempt to simulate disability.  Instead, listen to us.  Let us tell you our experiences and believe us and understand no one person can possibly convey the range of human experiences, not even those for a particular disability.

This also applies to casually using a disability as a metaphor.  Oh, I’m so OCD, she’s so bipolar.  This indicates a clear lack of understanding of what those conditions truly are.  Someone who is neat assuming they might understand what it’s like to be OCD only shows they never met someone who is unable to clean for themselves because of their debilitating rituals.  It trivializes the experience, and spreads misinformation about the condition.

Recently I’ve seen several other examples of “simulations” designed to invoke understanding.  For some activists, it will help communicate why simulating disability is incredibly problematic, while others might need to reconsider why they give space to people who are engaging in problematic practices.

The example I’m thinking of is a story of a white non-Muslim wearing a hijab to experience (some small fraction) of the harassment experienced by Muslim women.  Once again, this fails to encompass their lived experience, as an observer who takes on the Hijab casually and by choice unaffected by factors such as their community or beliefs.

It completely erases the significance of the Hijab, as well as the many different experiences of people who wear them.  There are many different reasons why women make this choice, and the simulation robs them of a voice.

The silencing of Muslim women, who are constantly working to be heard by white feminists, let alone the rest of the world, as agentic people who have their own reasons and opinions why they do or do not wear the Hijab, and their varied experiences of Islamophobia and racism.  It is their story, not that of a white person who decided they were curious.  If you are curious, listen to what these women have to say.  Many of them write, blog, and vlog about their experiences and opinions.  They are the ones you should be listening to.
If you cannot listen to the voices of the people affected without coopting their experiences, you are not a real ally, you are taking space that does not belong to you.

There are a number of very famous instances of people with privilege assuming a caricature of another experience and becoming rich and famous for their work, then shed their “oppressed” identity, while hundreds of people of that group struggle to get any recognition or support.  Before Rachel Dolezal, there was John Howard Griffin, who wrote a book Black Like Me, about his experiences traveling disguised as a black man.  He is still celebrated, despite having recognized how limited his experiment was, later in life.


What then, can we use to teach empathy? 


There are some really wonderful social experiments that have allowed people to experience social exclusion.  These have shown to be incredibly powerful, because exclusion is such a damaging experience even on a minute scale.  Because it can be very harmful, some of these experiments are controversial, and not all are suitable for repetition as an educational exercise, especially since it will disproportionately affect people who are already marginalized.

Well known examples include separating children into two groups.  Simply by assigning labels, people will feel group identification and begin to see the others as an outgroup.  Simulating rejection, even slight rejection by a stranger, causes people to feel physically colder and sadder.  Other simulations of social exclusion have shown it negatively impacts classroom performance.  I will link a few such experiments below.

We also have evidence.  There are many studies on the long term effect of social exclusion, which show that the cumulative effects of stigma are quite literally deadly.  For example, there are studies of perceived isolation among minority students and its negative impact on their mental health.  One of the most powerful examples, though, is the research showing that HIV+ gay men experienced worse physical and mental health outcomes including increased likelihood of cancer and secondary infections and more rapid decline in their condition based on how closeted they were.  Both studies cited below relied on samples of people recruited from a gay community, so even the most closeted still had some community support.

It’s to this kind of evidence and the work of activists and advocates of the groups we want to learn about to which we should turn.

References (in no particular order)




Cole, S. W., Kemeny, M. E., Taylor, S. E., Visscher, B. R., & Fahey, J. L. (1996). Accelerated course of human immunodeficiency virus infection in gay men who conceal their homosexual identity. Psychosomatic Medicine58(3), 219-231.

Cole, S. W., Kemeny, M. E., Taylor, S. E., & Visscher, B. R. (1996). Elevated physical health risk among gay men who conceal their homosexual identity.Health Psychology15(4), 243.http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Margaret_Kemeny/publication/14386003_Elevated_physical_health_risk_among_gay_men_who_conceal_their_homosexual_identity/links/00b4951c96f6f2bbb6000000.pdf

Thanks to Matt V Perry for link:



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