So I’m setting off on my wheelchair simulation, and let me tell you, this was not my idea. Or at least, it was not my idea to have me be the one doing it. I am not the most athletic person out there. I look like I’m sort of in shape, but because of a mild disability myself, I haven’t taken gym since fourth grade, and I’ve pretty much made it my game plan to avoid almost all forms of exercise as much as possible. Physically speaking, in five words or less, I am a lazy son of a gun. So I knew this would be a challenge. It was certainly not one of the world’s greatest ideas, and in my mind, headed more toward the direction of the Darwin Awards.
11 a.m.: I walk ed to the Student Publications Building and head upstairs, where I basically begged and pleaded for someone to accompany me to the Frieze Building. Eventually, Staff Reporter Ashley Dinges agreed to walk me to class. There is a ramp outside of the building, and I made it down and stopped, no problem. It was a good start, but then things got complicated.
Among the advice RC freshman Sarah Watkins, who has cerebral palsy and is a 24/7 wheelchair user, gave me was “don’t have people push you around unless it really becomes an issue.” Sorry, Sarah. That advice was broken in about five minutes.
Oh, the sidewalk. Enemy No. 1. I should have been prepared for you. Really, I should have seen the way you tilt off to the road. I should have known that every time I tried to push myself forward, you would steer me toward traffic. I should have known potholes are really more like animal traps, and that my wheels would get stuck on them, and that they would sometimes cause my wheels to unintentionally come up off the ground, leaving me helpless. Sarah had even hinted at the problems sidewalks cause her. “I don’t like to walk around at night so much … some of the sidewalks are so bad, and if I don’t see the potholes …” she had said, her voice trailing off, giving the impression of great danger. (Note from Operations and Facilities spokeswoman Diane Brown: “If students encounter a sidewalk that they perceive to be a University sidewalk in need of repairs, they should report that to … 647-2059,” Brown said. “We’re very interested in knowing where additional accommodations should be made and it takes people making those reports sometimes for us to be aware of a need.”)
On the way to the Frieze, Ashley said she felt bad because she thought others would think we were mocking the handicapped. This is one reason why wheelchair simulations are such a heated topic among the handicapped community – because it makes them look like they need more help than they actually do. “When you just stick someone in a chair and they’ve never been in a chair before, they don’t have any coping strategies,” said Sam Goodin, director and coordinator of services for students with mobility impairments at the Office of Services for Students With Disabilities. “They make it seem like a more formidable problem than it really is. … If you put me in a chair right now and you tell me I have to go to (somewhere), I’m going to be totally wiped out by the time I get there,” he said. (Tell me about it.) “But if I’m a paraplegic and I’ve been in a chair, I’m probably going to beat most people who can walk.” Going down the sidewalk by myself in a wheelchair, most turtles could have beaten me to the Frieze. In fact, they probably could have doubled back and made the trip twice.
1 p.m.: My first class was over, and I was outside again. I managed to make it up one of the building’s tiny ramps (a ramp I had enjoyed going down) and outdoors by myself. It was a proud moment. But sitting at the curb, staring off into the construction that awaited me near the Modern Languages Building – well, if I could have used all my mental energies to magically transport me to Angell Hall, I would have. Instead, I took it one thing at a time. My next class was at 3, so I had two hours. I had to be able to make it two blocks in two hours, right? I got as far as the end of the MLB (I made it over the curb by myself!) before I stopped to study the terrain. There were wooden splices all over the place, potholes, cars, curbs – scary stuff. So I sucked it up and called for Ashley again, keeping in mind that disabled people are able to do anything abled people can do; they just need help sometimes. Ashley helped push me down the street to the Diag, where sidewalks are much more friendly. A guy standing in Angell Hall saw me and pushed the handicap entrance buttons, which was not really needed, but much appreciated anyway.
1:30 p.m.: I was determined to explore Angell Hall and get the real feel for being in a chair. Sarah had told me to focus on things like where chairs will fit – handicapped restrooms – and not to take shortcuts. She also banned me from doing pop-a-wheelies instead of finding the curb. Well, check, OK, and no problem. I went and ran some errands, the first one being to the second floor to pick up an essay. On the way there, a guy stood at a door for a good two minutes while I struggled to get through (thanks!). It’s good to know that I didn’t have to beg for help every time I needed it. Once upstairs, I decided to use the bathroom. There was a handicapped restroom right across the elevator, and I wheeled myself toward it, looking around for someone who might get the door. There was no one. And this resulted in a great accomplishment: I learned how to get through doors by myself. I discovered that if I just propped the door open a little, I could put my arms on the side of the door and push myself through that way, instead of wheeling the chair through. It may not seem like such a great moment, but it was the first time I felt I had adapted to life in the chair. And let it be known that the second-floor handicapped bathroom across from the west elevator is plenty big. (According to RC senior Erica Mitchell, whose leg was amputated when she was 18, the best bathroom is on the first floor of Haven Hall).
2:45 p.m.: I had been waiting outside the door of my class for 45 minutes when my classmates began to appear. Whether they would ask me about what happened had become an interesting question in my mind. All day long, people had reacted differently. Some looked shocked and asked right away, some looked shocked and didn’t ask at all and some just didn’t ask. I wondered why some asked and some didn’t – perhaps it was their comfort level with me, or maybe it was based on their previous experiences with disabled people. Now, one of the guys in my class came up to the drinking fountain next to me, took a sip of water, and turned to face me. He opened his mouth once, closed it, and opened it again. Finally, he asked. “What happened?”
5:30 p.m.: One last challenge awaited me: Making it from Angell Hall to the Daily – by myself. I made it to the East William Street curb slowly but surely, and crossed the road in time to not hold up traffic. Up the curb I went – well, almost. I rolled back down. Up again, this time using all my might to keep the wheels from going backwards. A guy nearby who I never saw approached me from behind and stopped me and asked if I needed help. Stuck there, I said OK. He helped push me up the curb, and I thanked him. After he left, I immediately began rolling toward the street. I’m pretty sure I was cursing by this point, but I’m also pretty sure the determination on my face must have been something fierce. I got to the end of the block, down the curb, across the street, and it was de-ja-vu, all over again. The curb was slanted three ways. I wanted to die. Another guy on his cell asked me if I needed help, and I said okay, and he helped me up the curb. Like everyone else who helped me, he made sure not to make me feel bad or helpless – “That’s a steep curb,” they almost all said – but it wasn’t much help. I should state something Erica said about others helping her. “I know of amputees with fairly high amputations who can still ride a bike without adjustments. There are a lot of things like that, things that seem impossible, but sometimes you just try it and it works,” she had said. “I can think of a bunch of little incidents where people come up to help me, and I’m like, ‘That’s okay, the exercise is good for me.’ And they’ll start pushing me anyway.” She went on: “You just got to believe people when they say they are able to do what they are doing.”
5:45 p.m.: Back at the Daily, I stretched my legs for the first time in almost seven hours. My legs ached from the inactivity, but I was grateful to walk again.
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