Those Pretending-to-Be-Blind Activities May Backfire

Volunteers attempt to shop blindfolded during an event to mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, at a supermarket in Mianyang, Sichuan province, China December 3, 2014.
Photo: Reuters/Corbis

Back in elementary school, my class participated in a program called Understanding Handicaps, if memory serves. The basic idea, as the name implies, was to instill in us some empathy for folks who have physical handicaps. One of the activities, of course, was to walk around with a blindfold and cane. Whoa, this is what it’s like to be blind!

A lot of schools have programs like this, and the blindfolding exercise is particularly common. But a new study in Social Psychology and Personality Science suggests that it might be a bit counterproductive. The author, Arielle Silverman, who completed the research for her doctoral studies at the University of Colorado - Boulder and is now at the University of Seattle (and who happens to be blind), had more than a hundred undergrads at UC -Boulder perform various activities while blindfolded. Then, she had them and a control group fill out various surveys meant to reveal their thoughts on what it would be like to be blind.

Overall, as the press release explains, “participants believed people who are blind are less capable of work and independent living than did participants who simulated other impairments like amputation, or had no impairment … [and] participants who were blindfolded said they would be less capable if they personally became blind and slower to adjust to their new world compared with study participants who weren’t blindfolded.”

I can’t say with 100 percent certainty because it was so long ago, but I think that during Understanding Handicaps, at least one blind person actually came in to talk about her life, take our questions, and so on. That, explains the researchers, is how to counteract these effects: when you just slap a blindfold on someone and have them stumble around with no further context, it’s understandable that their reaction might be negative or less than fully understanding. Actually talking to a blind person and hearing how they’ve adapted, on the other hand, might lead to better results.

Pretending-to-Be-Blind Activities May Backfire