The Oakland Role raises the consciousness of Oakland citizens to their disabled neighbors and equalize awareness of accessibility for the health and vitality of downtown Oakland. According to the United States Census Bureau [] in 2014 10.2% occupants aged 18-64 years considered themselves as disabled within the 94612 area code, the heart of the downtown Oakland. That figure rose to 36% for those over the age of 65. To further break it down, that 18-64 year subset included 5.2% with mobile or ambulatory, 1.9 % visual, and 2.1% with hearing impairments. A significant part of the population knows someone or a network of people affected by people with special needs in Alameda County making sensitivity over disability accommodations a prevalent concern (Pflueger, 2015).  These people travel downtown through BART, the AC Transit Bus, or a personalized shuttle, the East Bay Paratransit, into the pedestrian walkways of the city to participate in leisure and business activities with the rest of the general populace.  Lewis Kraus, Deputy Director at the Center on Disability at the Public Health Institute in Oakland says, “If there is not [sic] accessibility, people with disabilities will not be there, because they know they cannot get around.” (L. Kraus, personal communication, January 4, 2015). The Oakland Role acts in alignment with the Social Model of Disability which proposes lowering the systemic barriers for people with disabilities so they can better participate in the society at large (Oliver, 2013), with a particular focus on examining the accessibility of physical structures and opening attitudes. The rapid growth of urban development downtown neighborhoods increases the urgency to address and insure inclusive accommodations become available in the changing landscape. Through the experience facilitated by The Oakland Role, citizens will increase accessibility awareness and make better informed choices sensitive to Oakland’s philosophy of inclusion stimulating a stronger social diversity as part of its current evolution.

The Oakland Role Project

This pilot project, The Oakland Role, is a mobile slideshow application that sends conscientious citizens on an excursion simulating daily life activities through the Lake Merritt District in downtown Oakland while in role-play as a person with a mobile, visual or hearing disability. It combines both mobile learning which involves education through handheld computers (Maxwell, n.d.) and a serious game structure. Serious games use people’s interest in games, defined as “A form of play with goals and structure” by Maroney (2001), to capture a purpose beyond entertainment including education, training and public policy (Djaouti, Alverez, & Jessel, 2011). In this case the game is role-play and an exploratory tour. The Bay Area Rapid Transit [BART] at the 19th Street Station is the chosen incoming transportation. In this project, up to citizens meet at the lower level of the 19th St BART Station lower level where they will meet a facilitator and then choose one of three role-play characters with either a mobile, hearing or visual disability. The module sets up an imagined scenario of a business owner commuting to work from which the participant will be prompted to learn how to maneuver a typical commute where common pedestrian features such as an elevator, crosswalk or ramp are challenges and encouraged to interact with pedestrians or local businesses with simple questions until they reach their destination. At their final destination a small creative poster will synthesize their experience.

As a serious game, the Oakland Role capitalizes on the gaming methods of role play and by mobile learning which enables real world interaction to elicit awareness and empathy. Role-play has been defined as when the participant momentarily imagines themselves as someone else, “an individual goes beyond his or her typically egocentric means of perceiving the world to contemplate a different point of view” in research by Peng which studied how different mediums, textual versus digital, influenced a role-player’s willingness to help. (Peng, Lee, & Heeter, 2010, p 723,724). Similarly, game play enhances learning with its ability to engage the problem solving skills (Gee, 2003).  James Paul Gee writes of the participants, “Their choices matter. What they do matters. I would argue that all deep learning involves learners feeling a strong sense of ownership and agency, as well as the ability to produce and not just passively consume.” (Gee, 2008, p.35).   More distinctly, role-playing and geographical exploration can both be excellent way to teach (Johnson et al., 2015) and gain insight into different perspectives (Gorden, 2011). A Similar digital predecessor, The Oregon Trail, teaches the hardships of the western pioneers through role-play (Trombley, 2014).

Mobile learning encourages interactive practice within the targeted performance context, in this case the environment of downtown Oakland. “Mobile media is different because it ties into the physical space of our neighborhoods, with longstanding relationships and neighborhood dramas,” notes the study, Civic Tripod [ ] which argues for greater dialogue between the artistic, activist and educational realms in mobile games (Ruiz, Stokes, & Watson, 2012a, para 4). The Oakland Role, brings awareness to accessibility accommodations and the potential empathetic experience of the daily commute experience for people with physical and sensory disabilities as well as greater familiarity with the people and geography of the Lake Merritt Office District neighborhood.
Goals and Learning Objectives

Immersion into the specified experience of a person with a disability commuting in downtown Oakland:


  • Increase empathy towards the experiences of people with mobile, visual or hearing impairments.
  • Improve accessibility awareness for people with disabilities.
  • Lower social barriers through the visitation and communication of local businesses and with the surrounding pedestrians.
  • Gain geographical neighborhood familiarity of the Oakland downtown.
  • Increase exposure to technical applications and mobile navigation systems.


  • Stimulated kinetic exercise (walking or using arms).
  • Practice engagement in social media tools such as Twitter commentary.
  • Develop a casual network within the local Oakland small business community.


After the course completion participants will:

  • Identify as a person with a physical or sensory disability (mobile, visual or hearing) through role-play.
  • Gain empathy through the recognizing and problem solving the challenges in travelling pedestrian streets as a person with a physical or sensory disability.
  • Greater familiarity the local community through interaction with pedestrians and some local businesses in downtown Oakland.
  • Geographically locating some basic facilities in downtown Oakland (kinetic spatial skills)
  • Communication and live interaction (social skills) with a variety of locals while in transit.
  • Learn to identify ADA accessible guidelines for urban areas.
  • Synthesize experiences through a creative T shirt design.


Brief Architecture Overview

The Oakland Role is a guided exploration and as such will include hands on facilitation several days preceding, during and after the program. As a mobile learning project, The Oakland Role consists of many micro-learning sequences on location that include small act of participation within the surrounding environment. The modules branches out for different role playing experiences




  1. Geographical: City of Oakland site [].
  2. Accessibility Accommodation Guidelines have been pulled from a number of sources:
    1. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Standards for Accessible Design 2010. []
    2. The United State Access Board [] , and
    3. S. Department of Transportation: Bicycle and Pedestrian Program []


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