Have you ever wondered what it would be like to walk through the busy streets of a city, but have a visual impairment? Have you ever wondered how it would feel to learn with a learning disability? Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to get around in a wheelchair all day? Well, a few years ago many who wondered about these questions were able to attempt to find out what it felt like to face everyday life with a disability. Many years ago Fitchburg State University created a Disability Awareness Day in which students and community members were able to sign up to participate in multiple disability simulations. When signing up adults did not know which disability they were going to receive unless they had specifically asked for a certain one. The way the day worked was that participants were given a piece of paper stating what their disability for the day was and how they must act. If they had a disability that could not visually be seen like a learning disability, they must tell no one. Disabilities ranged from having to tap your pencil three times every five minutes, to wrapping an arm up so you could not use it, to navigating one’s way around campus practically blind or in a wheelchair (Maki).
The artifact is two newspaper articles from April 6th, 1995, telling the stories of individuals encountering one of Fitchburg State University’s Disability Awareness Days. The newspaper articles themselves are in great shape and currently kept in a portfolio book with other artifacts about Fitchburg State University’s Disability Services history.
The newspaper articles tell about the first-ever Disability Simulations executed by students and staff members of the university on the university’s Disability Awareness Day. On April 6th, 1995, the first disability simulations at Fitchburg State University took place on the 3rd annual Disability Awareness Day. That day twenty-five people, both staff and students, volunteered to be assigned a disability to experience for the day. Those who were not a part of the twenty-five people were able to experience different disabilities in Hammond Hall where tables were set up with different small activities.
The first story told is of Laura Gurley-Mozie whose daughter suffers from a spinal muscular atrophy and will use a wheelchair for the rest of her life. This was one reason why she had decided to participate. Gurley-Mozie worked in the Management Information Systems Office in charge of User Services, and her office was housed on the third floor of Edgerly Hall. On a normal day she parks her car, walks across the quad, and climbs three flights of stairs, but today would be different. Gurley-Mozie was assigned to navigate campus in a wheelchair for the day, so she could experience what her daughter must go through everyday. To enter Edgerly Hall she would have to enter from a side door and ride a wheelchair lift “which [she is] scared to death of” to the third floor. Most of the time when using the lift in Edgerly it would take a long time and she would oftentimes have to ask people for help. As the day went on Gurley-Mozie truly felt the challenges those with a disability have to encounter everyday.
Another story within these articles was from David Marsh. He was an employee for the athletic department. His diagnosed disability for the day unlike Gurley-Mozie’s was not a physical disability. Marsh was assigned to portray having Obsessive Compulsive Order for the day. Immediately, he found this task of having this disability frustrating. Every time Marsh went through a doorway he was required to tap his foot six times. He was also told to avert his gaze from anybody he spoke to or who spoke to him. All day as he worked Marsh found himself avoiding talking to his boss who was three doors down, as he would have to tap his foot eighteen times to get to his boss’s office and then eighteen more times to return to his own office. The entire day Marsh stated his behavior was on his mind which took away a surprising amount of his energy.
Within Hammond Hall there were multiple disabilities for students to experience. The Massachusetts Association for the Blind’s Leominster office sponsored a vision impairment information table. At this table they had a variety of products on display such as eyeglasses you could put on that would invert your vision or even cut off your peripheral vision. This would help students understand what living with a vision impairment might be like. There also were activities such as trying to solve a maze that was being reflected in a mirror, or trying to read a paragraph that had words jumbled and letters flipped to demonstrate a disability such as dyslexia. Rod Malcom, an employee in the admissions office, who spent the day experiencing vision impairment stated, “Until you try it, you really won’t get a good feel for it." He was shocked by what students with disabilities have to go through on a daily basis.
Not all participants thought these simulations were a great idea, however. Stephen Welles who was a sophomore student at the time from Ayer felt as though a half-day experiment was not enough time to fully understand what students with disabilities go through. He himself has epilepsy and expressed the idea that people with disabilities deal with them twenty-four hours every day, not just for one experiment. Welles wasn’t the only one who voiced concerns about the disability simulations and in 2006 the last disability simulations took place (Maki).
Although the disability simulations themselves may be cancelled, Fitchburg State University still has a Disability Awareness Day every year. Not only this, but Disability Services works alongside students with disabilities to ensure that their experiences on campus are accommodated. As time advances so does Fitchburg State University’s plans in making campus as welcoming as possible to all students.
Clark, Andrienne. "Living With Disability." Fitchburg Sentinel+Enterprise, 6 Apr. 1995, pp. A1-A2.
Guilfoy, Christine. "Disabled feel the frustrations." Raising Awareness in Fitchburg, 6 Apr. 1995, pp. B1-B5.
Maki, Julie. Interview. 3 Mar. 2020.