Howard Blas shares an important lesson from the Access Israel Conference.
I have been struggling with the role of disabilities simulation activities for many years. Five days at the Access Israel Conference, where such activities were handled thoughtfully, sensitively and mostly facilitated and processed by people with disabilities—has convinced me that they can play an important role in changing society’s attitudes toward people with disabilities. Let me explain.
In 2015, when Lisa Tobin, the then Director of Inclusion Initiatives at the Foundation for Jewish Camp and I were completing our 201-page Inclusion resource guide, we received some feedback from members of the disabilities community that we should reconsider including disabilities simulation activities. In short, they argued that such activities do not really replicate the disability experience and they can leave participants with increased negative perceptions of disability including feelings of pity.
We ultimately decided to include some simulation activities in the training manual —with a caveat: “They are intended to offer a glimpse into the very complex world of disability.” Five days at Access Israel’s recent 7th International Conference in Tel Aviv Access Israel Conference demonstrated that it is possible to effectively and sensitively use simulations in teaching about disabilities. They key ingredient is involving people with disabilities in the training.
The Access Israel conference brought together over 500 people from 22 countries. Attendees heard from experts on access and inclusion on such topics as Accessible Technology, Barrier-Free Tourism, Urban Accessibility Initiatives and Challenges from Around the World, and Global Models for the Implementation of Technology. They participated in customized sessions—and panels—on such topics as Inclusive Design, Culture for All and Justice and Democracy for All, visited Israeli programs, and toured the now-accessible Old City of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv/Jaffa. Many conference attendees and presenters were people with disabilities including app and product designers, government officials and even the co-founder of Space IL, Yariv Bash.
On the first day of the conference, several attendees toured the Wingate Institute, Israel’s National Centre for Physical Education and Sport. We had the opportunity to experience a simulation activity, set up by Access Israel, during an Israeli Junior Olympics competition, which provided the judo participants, swimmers, and others the chance to play basketball with an Israeli wheelchair player, Liron Levy, navigate an obstacle course in a wheelchair, and eat a mystery cold substance in a cup—while blindfolded.
Our adult group also had the opportunity to participate in the basketball and ice cream eating activity. Liron shared his experience as a person who uses a wheelchair, and a young woman who is blind spoke to us about her experience being blind, completing university, etc. Such simulations take place with school children throughout Israel—and are always facilitated by people with disabilities. Participants in the simulation not only had a momentary glimpse in to the experience of navigating the world as a blind person, or as a wheelchair user; we had the opportunity to hear about the real life experience of people with disabilities as they navigate the world. And we engaged in a dialogue. As we better got to know our instructors who had disabilities, we did not feel pity, as critics had cautioned; rather, we felt better informed of their daily experiences navigating the world, including getting dressed, eating and traveling.
Three days later, as the main part of the conference got underway at Avenue Convention and Events Center in Airport City, conference attendees were greeted with many simulation stations as they passed through registration, on the way to the main conference hall. Again, people with disabilities were on hand to explain the simulation and to share their experiences of being blind, deaf or using a wheelchair. Many tried learning and communicating in Hebrew sign language, navigating a blind obstacle course and taking a wheelchair through a series of obstacles.
Later that evening, conference participants enjoyed a Feast of the Senses dinner. Following cocktails on a lovely Renanna event space terrace, everyone received an Access Israel blindfold and was escorted in to dinner. People in wheelchairs commented about the unique, important opportunity to experience the disabilities of others. Staff members patiently and carefully showed us to our seats, where we encouraged to feel our way to two wine glasses—and determine through our other senses which was white and which was red. And we were challenged to figure out which vegetables and fruits were in our salad.
Michal Rimon, CEO of Access Israel, introduced the meal. “We will be joined by people who live with disabilities. They will talk to you about their challenges, triumphs and successes. The more your let yourselves dive in, the more you will get from the experience.” Rimon, who has led this exercise at many past dinners, knew what the diners were going through. “Right now, you are compensating—you are using other senses more.” This helped explain my increased sensitivity to the noise in the room—and to my walking in to the room very intentionally, trying to maintain my balance.
Our blindfolds were removed and we engaged in a dialogue with an Israeli woman who lost her sight at age three and learned Braille at age four. She reported that only 10% of blind people know Braille since many lose their sight later in life, when it is very hard to learn. “Learning Braille is the greatest gift I was ever given,” our guide reported. One participant asked, “What do you see in dreams?”
Our second course was a sensory course, where each participant was challenged to eat with cooking mitts—with a wooden flat board inside. Finally, our last course was a deaf simulation. A deaf man shared his experiences navigating the world as another man translated for the audience.
As the third successful simulation drew to a close, I continued to wonder why our camping inclusion manual simulation activities were met with pushback, and what made the Access Israel exercises so successful? Rimon patiently considered my questions and conceded that they too had some difficulties at first. “In the beginning, it was a big challenge to do such activities. People thought such simulations would be bad for the kids, it would make them sad, so we had to find one or two schools to start.”
Rimon describes the four pillars to their approach: knowledge, experience, knowing the person behind the disability, and paying it forward. Rimon stresses the importance of giving participants in each class the tools to pass on the experience to others. Students are given homework to go home and discuss what they have learned with their families. She notes that” schools now stand in line to participate in the program.” Rimon feels the program is “changing the DNA of the children.”
The simulation activities we experienced at the Access Israel conference were useful. Spending five days of the conference sharing and learning, eating meals, riding the tour bus and navigating the Old together with colleagues and new friends with disabilities—from a German reporter and two commissioners on disabilities of major US cities who use wheelchairs, to a deaf museum executive, to a blind member of the Google Accessibility team–went even further in changing our DNA.