“Experiencing Disability” in an In-Class Exercise

“Disability is in fact the inability to make progress and achievements. The achievements that people of determination have made in various spheres over the past years are proof that determination and strong will can do the impossible and encourage people to counter challenges and difficult circumstances while firmly achieving their goals.”

HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai

On Sunday, October 6, 2019 I engaged my tolerance and diversity students at the American University in the Emirates (AUE) in an exercise about disability which I adapted from an activity from my Bryan School of Business & Economics at UNCG PhD orientation program in July 2019.

In the exercise, which was designed to simulate communication and confusion within an organization, there are typically three roles (I added a fourth to facilitate the exercise in my classroom):

  1. The CEO (who can see, but not talk).
  2. The Manager (who can talk, but cannot see).
  3. The Employee (who is blindfolded).
  4. The Goalie (who holds an object that will be retrieved or interacted with; in this case, it was a service bell you would find on a desk).

The participants are situated as follows:

  • The CEO is facing the manager and the employee (who is placed at some point behind the manager).
  • The manager is directly in front of the CEO, facing him or her with their back to the employee.
  • The employee is behind the manager, blindfolded, but able to move freely in response to instructions from the manager to find it.
  • The Goalie is positioned somewhere in the room; either in a fixed location or is instructed to move at will.

Ideally, the CEO and the manager will develop a way to communicate with each other; the manager also needs to think about how to translate the CEO’s nonverbal communication to the employee. This gets especially confusing when the issue of who’s left or right comes into play. The employee is blindfolded and must listen to the voice of the manager to know where and how to move.

When I participated in this exercise as part of the orientation program for my PhD in Business Administration at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, I was outdoors with my 17 cohort members at the university’s Piney Lake recreational area. We conducted this experiment with several teams going at the same time, creating further confusion and misunderstanding.

In my tolerance and diversity class, we conducted the exercise twice with two different sets of students (who volunteered and agreed to allow themselves to be video recorded).  Both versions are included in this video, one after the other. For the first group the Goalie did not move and remained in the same position; for the second group I instructed the Goalie to move evasively as the Employee got closer to her — thus creating further confusion and frustration.

Following the exercise, we discussed what the experience was like for those who participated (and later, for those in the class who were observing). We then bridged that exercise into a conversation about individuals with disabilities in the workplace or at our university. Students shared their experiences either as an individual with a disability or their interactions with people of determination in their personal or professional lives.

After this, I introduced an article analysis assignment of a Harvard Business Review article titled, “The Case for Improving Work for People with Disabilities Goes Way Beyond Compliance.” The assignment asked them to do three things:

  1. Summarize the main idea of the article.
  2. Identify and Paraphrase the four ways a company can create a culture of support and inclusion.
  3. Propose how you can personally create a culture of support and inclusion in your organization.

During our next class we then discussed their insights and ideas from the article while engaging in a thoughtful dialogue about the topic.