FROM time to time last year Barbara Sabol, the head of New York City's Human Resources Administration, underwent a striking metamorphosis. Instead of donning her usual business suit, jewelry, and heels, she put on jeans, a sweat shirt, and a wig or scarf. Then she headed for the city's welfare centers, where she posed as a single, unemployed welfare applicant.
As she journeyed from office to office, Ms. Sabol was subjected to a long list of indignities, ranging from being sent to wrong departments and standing in endless lines to sitting in cockroach-infested waiting rooms and enduring scolding, condescending remarks. She recalls feeling invisible - "depersonalized."
Shocked by her new awareness of the treatment welfare recipients sometimes receive, Sabol returned to her own desk determined to make the welfare system better.
Is there anyone who hasn't longed, at some moment or other, to trade places temporarily with another person or to be the proverbial fly on the wall, watching and listening as others work or play? For most people, this silent-observer status is impossible. But for those like Sabol who can arrange to walk in another's moccasins, as the Indians put it, the experience can be both illuminating and sobering. In the best circumstances, it can also give a wider audience a heightened awareness of the dignity inhe rent in each individual and every job.
One of the most famous role-reversers was John Howard Griffin, a white man who in 1959 underwent a series of medical treatments to darken his skin temporarily. He spent six weeks traveling through the South as a black man, then turned his experience and his encounters with prejudice into a best-selling book, "Black Like Me."
More recently Jack Coleman, the former president of Haverford College in Pennsylvania, made a minor second career of learning other jobs. During one five-month sabbatical in the 1970s he worked variously as a ditch digger in Atlanta, a garbage collector in suburban Washington, D.C., and a dishwasher in Boston. He spent vacations laboring in a marble quarry in Wyoming, on a drilling rig in the uranium fields of New Mexico, and on a hog farm in New Jersey. Later, as president of a foundation in New York, h e served as an "inmate" in five maximum-security prisons and as a guard in two others.
But of all his experiences, the one that affected him most profoundly was the week and a half he spent living as a homeless man on the streets of New York during a frigid winter.
"Without any question, those were the 10 most important days of my life," says Mr. Coleman, who now runs the Inn at Long Last in Chester, Vt. "Anything I learned other places seems to pale next to what I learned there." He attributes his abiding interest in people to his mother, who "had respect for every human being in our town."
In lesser hands, role reversals and masquerades like these run the risk of becoming little more than trivial sociological games. Motives - and respect - are everything.
Still, what would happen to the national empathy level if more people glimpsed firsthand the daily routines and experiences of others? How would perceptions change, for instance, if CEOs worked briefly on assembly lines? If fathers of small children temporarily took over the day-in, day-out duties of mothers? If exurbanites spent time in the inner city? One of the most fitting role-swaps ever devised may be the one ordered a few years ago by a creative East Coast judge, who sentenced a slumlord to live f or a period in his own filthy tenement house.
Eventually, of course, the masks come off, the experiments end, and role-reversers return to their own lives, their own careers, their own identities. Yet increasingly, assuming a different role may no longer be a matter of temporary or voluntary play-acting. As the workplace changes through downsizing, fewer people will be able to retain one fixed professional identity throughout a working lifetime.
At work and at home, the old fixed and restrictive stereotypes are being forced into obsolescence by the logic of changing times - an event mourned by some traditionalists. But if all this leads to a more flexible, more generous, and finally surer sense of identity, who in the long run can complain?