Blog Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging Health Equity

Forward to the future: An immersive experience with empathetic exercises

Written by Miguel Cadiz, BS candidate at Washington University in St. Louis, undergraduate researcher at the Ibanez Lab, and participant in the Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

As a young and able-bodied person, it’s hard for me to imagine the constraints of severe physical disability. Although I wear glasses, I don’t have obscured, clouded vision. Although I’m clumsy, I can still keep my balance and navigate through my home with ease. I fortunately don’t need to consider additional supports like a wheelchair or accessible walkways for daily function. Regardless, I’ve learned that, from the Summer Research ProgramAging & Neurological Diseases Track, knowing how my health can falter as we age will guide me towards healthier living.

One foundational tool has been our program’s outing to a college campus to perform empathic exercises. Our program manager had created kits of items designed to simulate varying physical conditions that can be prevalent within older populations. These kits contained items like obscured or clouded glasses, or bandages to reduce flexibility in certain joints. My kit had glasses that simulated diabetic retinopathy, a condition that blurs your vision due to damage done to blood vessels in the eyes. I also had ear-plugs, which as you can tell, hindered my ability to take in my surroundings. My cohort’s task was to group up and navigate around the campus, eventually stopping at a certain location. My group was tasked with going to the nearby Starbucks to find out the price of a cake pop. It seemed too easy of a task at first, since it was a sunny afternoon and the campus wasn’t too busy. Walking out of our first building, though, my group and I soon realized that perhaps our “trivial” task would be more treacherous than we thought. Although no one fell flat on the ground, we occasionally stumbled into each other, had trouble seeing in front of us, and for me, had trouble hearing what others were saying and responding.

A sidewalk during a clear evening in Washington D.C. Photo: Kealan Burke

At one point, we were walking on a small pathway slightly elevated from the grass. Even though we were clumping next to each other to avoid any accidents, I made a misstep, tripping on the pavement. I wasn’t able to clearly see the borders of the path, since its shape and color merged with the adjacent grass. I was also walking at my normal pace, rather than being cautious. Although I was able to catch myself, I could tell how much more consideration an older adult with disabilities might need to ensure their safety. Eventually, we found the price of a cake pop ($2.10, if you are curious). More importantly, though, we were reminded of the need for accessibility across our society. Our college campus, and many others, are designed primarily for young adults, and unfortunately many public places fall into the same trap. We need creative and thoughtful ways of lowering physical and logistical barriers for those with disabilities. We should consider even the smallest of factors, and investigate the issues that a healthy person may neglect due to their own physical prowess.