@ Illustration by Marlies Pöschl

@ Illustration by Marlies Pöschl

Human rights education and disability simulation exercises – not a match made in heaven

by Zara Todd


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This article looks at the challenges of exploring disability in human rights education, why we should avoid simulating impairments and what alternative methods are available. Throughout this article I will view disability through the social model of disability.

I am a youth worker, trainer and human rights educator. I am also a disabled person. Human rights education gives people the knowledge and skills to advocate for their rights and the rights of others. Human rights and therefore human rights education is about achieving basic equality where who you are, where you’re born and how much money you have does not affect your rights entitlement.

Part of human rights education for me is about widening people’s horizons and perspectives about rights and why we have them. To do this we often require participants to put themselves in others’ shoes; these types of activities are often called simulations.

Simulation activities exist to explore challenges and in most circumstances they work because they highlight the barriers and injustice people face. Unfortunately somehow when it comes to disability we use simulation to explore identity rather than rights and barriers.

Before I begin I feel it is necessary to confess I have in my youth used simulation activities (although not in HRE) and it is partly through using them that I have seen their flaws first-hand.

What can we do instead of simulation?

I know that disability can be an intimidating topic for trainers and it certainly shouldn’t be ignored, so as a disabled person who is a trainer I offer five alternatives that I have found work better than simulation ever could.

1. Living libraries – living libraries are great, because rather than a poor imitation you get access to real human beings and the set-up and delivery promotes respect and equality. It’s also great because as a trainer you are not expected to know all the answers or be an expert on the topic. Helpfully, the Council of Europe has a really useful page on their website about living libraries and has created a guide to organising living libraries called Don’t judge a book by its cover.

2. Case studies – use case studies and videos of real people to explore barriers and rights violations. Real life can be much more challenging than what our imaginations can come up with. To find case studies go to disabled people’s organisations (which are run by disabled people rather than charities) like ENIL who will frame people’s experiences in a human rights-based perspective.

3. Use videos – if you can’t get disabled people in the room or don’t have much time videos can be a great way to explore disability. ENIL youth have created a few short videos on multiple discrimination with the help of the Council of Europe called Think Different, Think Equal.

End the Cycle have some great videos exploring disability and poverty in international development.

4. Socialise – the best disability equality tool I’ve ever found is not in the training room but outside it. Where possible, create space for people to just communicate with each other. Many negative assumptions come from lack of time spent with the group. Obviously if you want to use this approach you need to think about how you make your training mixed ability and inclusive.

5. Adapt other activities – Compass and Compasito both have activities that could be easily adapted to look at disability, for example Path to Equality-land could easily be changed to focus on disability equality rather than gender. Just remember to debrief well.

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