Building Empathy through Engaging People with Disabilities


It is not uncommon to hear about disability simulation activities wherein participants are supposed to learn about what it is like to have a disability by using a wheelchair or being blindfolded. Unfortunately, these often leave participants with inaccurate perceptions of what it is like to have a disability—due to the brief nature of the activity, participants can't develop the tools and strategies that people with disabilities have, and it leaves participants feeling discouraged, often pitying people with disabilities instead of being inspired to find solutions to societal barriers. In particular, students may believe that it is more difficult to navigate the world as a disabled person than it actually is for people with disabilities who have adapted their lifestyles.

It is much more meaningful to learn about the experience of people with disabilities by hearing directly from them and discussing about the ways they use technology. When people with disabilities are involved with educating others about these topics the focus becomes not only the barriers that exist, but rather, how these barriers can be minimized through universal design, assistive technology (AT), and eliminating negative stereotypes about disability.

Panel Discussions and Other Strategies

Hosting a panel of individuals with disabilities is a great way to help students learn about how people with disabilities experience technology. During a panel discussion, individuals with disabilities can share their real-life experiences in daily living, strategies they use, and their experiences with technology. This paints a realistic view of what it is like to have a disability by emphasizing the flexibility, creativity, and collaboration it takes to navigate the environments that may not fit their needs.

Be sure to include individuals with a variety of disabilities, including both apparent and invisible disabilities on the panel. Recruiting three to five participants is enough for diversity among panelists yet time for each panelist to participate. If there are students with disabilities in your class or in your department, you might invite them to participate. You can also locate panelists by working with your disability services office or student organizations focused on disability on your campus or find local organizations that work with people with disabilities.

Be sure to ask panelists what accommodations they may need to participate—for example, a sign language interpreter or a meeting space that is accessible to someone with a mobility impairment. Many students will not need accommodations. Contact your disability services office if you have questions about how to provide or arrange accommodations.

Before the panel discussion, prepare a list of questions. Share the questions and information about the audience with your panelists so that they can prepare ahead of time. This will allow them to have more thorough and well thought out responses. Be sensitive to the fact that panelists may not want to share certain information. Let panelists know ahead of time that they do not need to answer every question.

Begin the event by asking the audience to consider the discussion confidential and to think of questions they would like to ask. Have panelists introduce themselves. Follow this with your questions and then invite questions from the audience.

Here are examples of questions you might ask panelists:

  • How has your disability influenced your education or career path?
  • What is one thing you like others to know about you that they might be afraid to ask?
  • What are your biggest obstacles in day-to-day life? What are some tools/strategies you use to address them? 
  • Assistive engineering products: how much do they use, what scenarios do they use, what aspects should be improved, what new functions do they want?
  • How would you design one item differently to help you?
  • What advice would you give engineers who are designing products that could benefit people with disabilities?
  • What advice do you have for engineers who don’t have disabilities about learning more about accessibility?
  • What are some good strategies about including and engaging with people with disabilities in the design process?
  • Have you learned about accessibility in your courses? What are some ways that faculty can use to teach about accessibility?

Another strategy that you can use to help students learn about the experiences of people with disabilities is to expose them to assistive technology (AT) that people with disabilities might use.  On your campus, consult with your disability services office or IT department to see if they have someone who can demonstrate a variety of AT to your students.  This might include screen readers, screen magnification software, mice or keyboard alternatives, or more.

Finally, if your students are designing technology designed to be used by people with disabilities, have them engage with a person with a disability who can serve as a subject matter expert. Engaging a person with a disability throughout the design process - during needs assessments, ideation, prototyping, and usability testing - can lead to technology that is much more usable by people with disabilities.


Discussion Questions

  • What engineering classes could feature a panel of people with disabilities?
  • At what stages in the design process should students talk to people with disabilities?
  • Are there any situations when a disability simulation would be recommended? Why or why not?