Arts & Culture

‘Navigating spaces’: Exploring the experience of disability

Workshop to simulate visual, auditory, physical impairments to increase disability awareness

Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2015
This article is part of the series Pathology to Power

Navigating Spaces is the second of four final projects for PHP 1680I: “Pathology to Power: Disability, Health and Community.” This article is the second in a series that covers students’ attempts to increase the visibility of disability on campus.

Today at 3:30 p.m., Alumnae Hall will host “Navigating Spaces: A Disability Interaction Workshop.” The workshop will feature stations on screen reader accessibility, campus building accessibility, auditory hallucinations and American Sign Language, said event coordinator Reid Secondo ’16. Attendees will navigate electronic, communicative, physical and psychological spaces while working with simulated hearing, vision and mobility impairments, Secondo said.

Stalling stigma

The “Screen Readers and Website Accessibility” booth will allow students to experience visual impairment by placing gauze pads over their eyes, Secondo said. Participants will then be taught to use an application called “ChromeVox” which reads text out loud to the user, he said. “We want them to navigate Facebook or Amazon and other high-profile sites to see what their experience is,” he added.

Lindsey Hassinger ’16, also a coordinator of the event, will facilitate an auditory hallucination station titled “Do You Hear What I Hear?: Working with Auditory Hallucinations.” Participants will be challenged to maintain conversations while listening to a compilation of voices heard by people who experience auditory hallucinations on a daily basis. “The voices are often malicious and atonal. They can tell people to do harmful things to themselves and to others,” Hassinger said.

Intrigued by Tim Riker, visiting lecturer in language studies, Claire Chin Foo ’17, another of the event’s coordinators created, a “Communicating with ASL” booth at Navigating Spaces. Participants will be taught basic American Sign Language and then be given a series of quotidian phrases to communicate to each other, Chin Foo said.

The fourth and final booth, titled “Navigating Places with Mobility Issues,” will involve trying to get in and out of Alumnae Hall using a wheelchair and the existing accommodations for people with mobility issues. “Most people don’t even know that there is a lift in Alumnae. To even find the lift or the elevator sometimes can be challenging in 10 minutes,” Chin Foo said.

Participants will have the opportunity to discuss their responses with the facilitators after completing each activity, Secondo said.

“We understand that we’re getting into reading period and people won’t be staying very long, so we didn’t want to take up a two-hour chunk,” Chin Foo said.

“This way, people can come and go as they please,” Hassinger added.

The event will also feature a raffle for free Avon tickets and a $25 gift card to Flatbread, according to the event’s Facebook page.

Secondo said the intent of the event was to go beyond pity or admiration for people with disabilities.

“The purpose isn’t to show people that because they have tried it for five minutes, they know what it is like,” Chin Foo said. “It’s to start a conversation.”

Hassinger said that the event was primarily “educational,” adding that each booth would have a pamphlet about the activity and information about the disability being simulated.

Beyond the classroom

Navigating Spaces could be seen as an extension of a similar exercise the students completed during class, Hassinger and Chin Foo said. Sarah Skeels, teaching associate in behavioral and social sciences, and Bruce Becker, professor of emergency medicine and behavioral and social sciences, challenged them to navigate Brown’s campus as if they had visual and auditory impairments.

During the exercise, students divided into pairs: One student from each pair taped gauze pads to their eyes and wore ear plugs, while the other student guided their partner down Thayer Street and inside various establishments, Hassinger said. The class then reconvened to recount their experiences, she added.

The debriefing session was the most important component of the exercise, as it “guided the discussion to a place of reflection,” Skeels said.

The exercise made her realize that people on campus were unaware of how to deal with disability, Chin Foo said. Curious passersby addressed their questions and remarks to the guides, ignoring the students who appeared to have disabilities entirely. “It was as if they didn’t exist. It was so rude,” she said.

Skeels said that pairs of female students reported incidents of sexual harassment and groping while participating in the exercise. “You would be shocked at the number of students who got catcalled,” she said. The exercise added a new dimension to students’ understanding of the “lived experiences” of people with disabilities, she said, stating that simulation was a useful tool if used responsibly.

“I used to have students use my spare wheelchair for a day to get around campus which, as you might realize, is on a hill,” Skeels said, adding that the experience resonated strongly with her students, many of whom have gone on to work in medicine, public policy and education. “Ten years later, they still tell me: ‘I can be with my patients or my kids with disabilities because I remember.’”

Skeels said she hoped Navigating Spaces would stimulate the bigger conversations conducted in the course so far.


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