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.

Janna Hutz
Daily Staff Reporter Maria Sprow spent Wednesday in a wheelchair in order to discover the difficulties disabled students face. (TONY DING/Daily)
Janna Hutz
Janna Hutz

 

11 a.m.: I walked 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.

Click
“http://www.michigandaily.com/vnews/display.v/ART/2003/11/21/3fbf7fb913d73”>
here to view this story as it appears in print.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *