Before I started my Occupational Therapy program, I had heard that, for our Physical Disabilities class, we were going to have to do a “wheelchair assignment” similar to what was portrayed this week in the FOX show “Glee.” For 24 hours, we would have to use a wheelchair as if it were how we lived our life every day and, hopefully, it would give us some insight and help us empathize with those who use a wheelchair rather than their legs to get around.
Once that class began, however, our instructor quickly explained to us why we would not be doing the wheelchair assignment. Apparently, it turned out to have an unintended effect on the previous year’s class. Rather than learning to empathize with wheelchair-users – as was the intended purpose of the assignment – these students became overly exuberant that they themselves were not “stuck” in a wheelchair on a day-to-day basis. If they couldn’t find a ramp, they just picked up their wheelchair and took it up the stairs. If they needed to go to the bathroom, they left their wheelchair at the door and waltzed right in. And when the 24 hours was up? They literally got up and walked right out of the wheelchair, thanking God that they would never have to do that again. When they wrote their reflection papers about their experience, many vented about how they were so happy that they didn’t ever have to use the wheelchair again. Not really what the professor was going for.
So what about for those who don’t have the option of getting out of their wheelchair and walking whenever there isn’t a ramp or curb cut-out in sight?
There are many suggestions about how we can become more aware and empathetic of the needs and experiences of wheelchair users, and the wheelchair experience is not one of them that is suggested in the current dialogue on this issue. The reasons against it are pretty much in line with what last year’s class experienced. You don’t know how to use it, you’re in pain because you have never used it before, and you just get plain frustrated because you can’t do what you’re used to. It doesn’t give you an accurate experience because it’s just not enough time to acclimate to what it might actually be like over an extended period of time.
Instead, people are encouraged to engage in activities that will increase their awareness of accessibility and experience. Some suggestions I have heard mentioned include walking a building’s premises to figure out where and how many wheelchair-accessible entrances there are; engaging in a daily routine with someone who uses a wheelchair; getting to know and asking questions of a person who uses a wheelchair; and reading an autobiography or watching a movie about a person who uses a wheelchair. I’m sure there are many more that you can think of!
If you watch the FOX show “Glee”, then you know that this week’s episode revolved around the theme of difference. In particular, it centered on the experience of Artie, the high schooler who uses a wheelchair, and the effect that his wheelchair usage had on his ability to participate fully in Glee Club (this episode did also address issues of difference related to cognitive limitations and sexuality). It was a really interesting episode, and although it wasn’t completely perfect or sensitive in its use of the wheelchairs and the language associated with them, I thought that it highlighted some great scenarios (students in wheelchairs being too low to reach things they needed in the cafeteria, or realizing through their own experience that there is only one wheelchair accessible ramp at the school) and dialogue (When the girl with a studder admits to Artie she’s been faking it all these years in order to push people away and get out of public speaking, and Artie, heartbroken, replies, “I would never try to push people away, cuz being in a chair kinda does that for you…I’m sorry now you get to be “normal” and I’m gonna be stuck in this chair the rest of my life. And that’s not something I can fake.” Chills!).
And click here to read a group wheelchair reflection paper written by some students in Maine – replete with professor comments – who seemed to actually complete the assignment correctly and understood what it was trying to teach them.
For those of us who are going into OT, these issues of experience and difference are critical for us to try to empathize with and understand so that we can help our clients gain maximum function.
And for those of us who are simply living in the world every day? We need to have respect for our fellow human beings. Because whether we use legs or wheels to go from one place to another, we are all worthy of respect.