An Exercise in Empathy

Simulations are used in various segments of society to advance learning. Engineers create models to simulate a building project to ensure calculated success. Sales analysts simulate forecast models to maximize profits. Meteorologists simulate weather patterns to make an informed forecast. At MAK, we employed this teaching model using simulation for the purpose of growing our students’ compassion.          

The Christmas Project for MAK this year was to raise funds to benefit disabled people in Taiwan. In the act of giving, we wanted to cultivate in our students a character of generosity and kindness. We wanted our students to go beyond mere sympathy, a feeling of pity for the other, to developing empathy, the act of entering into another person’s experience. We coordinated a series of activities in which each student simulated a particular disability using props and simple directions. 

Not only did each student experience a simulated disability, they performed these activities in pairs to experience being the helper; a reminder that even in simulated reality, we are not alone. 

At the beginning of each session, the students were given instructions on their task but also coached on their attitude. We were careful not to make a mockery of disabilities but to practice respect throughout participation. Students tried to treat their simulated disabled partners the way they might treat a disabled person in real life. They gathered back together after accomplishing their tasks to debrief on their experiences. Students shared how they felt during the simulation. One student said, “I was afraid of bumping into things [while blindfolded], it made me think about how scary it must be for blind people!” When asked which activity was most challenging, one student responded “The hearing one because I couldn’t hear anything and I couldn’t answer the questions!” When asked about what it was like to be the helper, one student acknowledged that “It was really hard to be the helper. I didn’t know what to do to help them [see, hear, walk.] Sometimes I got very frustrated.” 

They learned that just as each of them are unique with specific hobbies, talents, and personality, so disabled persons are not defined only by their special needs but by who they are. The differences between us and them are not as important as our similarities. 

Simulations, by definition, are a controlled imitation of reality. It cannot fully represent the experiences of living as a disabled person. For example, blind people adapt by developing a heightened sense of smell and touch. The remarkable way humans adapt to their obstacles simply cannot be demonstrated in our short time frame. Disabled people also cope with their challenges using technology and various aids. In order to show our students one way that society creatively utilizes our resources to help disabled people function more fully, we invited a special guest named Rainbow to our school. Rainbow is a seeing eye puppy in the process of training to become a helper to a blind person in Taiwan. Our dog-loving students were delighted to meet and greet our special friend and we were able to end the day with a positive reminder of one tangible way we as a society can help our blind friends.

It was a full day for our students. They were motivated in tackling the various challenges. They giggled at their friends’ attempts and became frustrated with the limitations. They succeeded in some tasks and failed at others. Sometimes they were good helpers, other times they forgot and their partners suffered as a result. They exhibited selfishness as well as profound compassion. At the end of the day, though our activities were artificially constructed, the lessons we learned together were real. We hope the compassion we instill in the students will overflow into the world to touch many lives. 

by: Cindy Brandt
Kaohsiung Campus Staff/Alumni ’96