As an experiment in empathy, I asked my students to use a wheelchair for a period of time and write about it. Some lasted days, others just a few hours. Below are two of the responses. Note: these have not been edited.
Late for class, yet again. Shocker.
Friday, March 05, 2010
Wheelchair user - for awhile
I hurried up the fairly small stairwell of Dickson Hall, skipping every one or two steps, to get to the second floor. As soon as my two feet reached the level, I reduced speed and gave myself a chance to catch my breath. Walking into class winded and out of breath would’ve been embarrassing, and I was not going to look like a newbie.
I continued to stride down a short hallway, the voices of professors and students slightly distorted as they gradually became louder, then soft again. My eyes concentrated on the numbers above each door I walked by: 266, 267, 268, and so on. At last was the arrival of door number 271, and I withdrew one last gasping breath before regaining my composure and coolly walking inside.
The desks were rearranged into a large circle― a sight not too often seen for college lectures― which slightly caught me by surprise. A few classmates curiously looked up or turned around to see whose footsteps suddenly coincided with Professor Bartlett’s voice. I smiled sheepishly at the probing eyes and― with a slightly heaving chest, still suppressing heavy breaths―took a seat between two young men of whom I still could not remember their names.
Today in class we read an excerpt from an autobiography about a woman who survived a terrible car accident and became a paraplegic; the excerpt was about her hardships during her time in Columbia University, which was ill-accessible for disabled students. As the class further discussed ableism― a topic we’d gone over for a few weeks, along with other types of discrimination―Professor Bartlett proposed an interesting challenge for anyone who wished to take it. If anyone was able to borrow a wheelchair, the challenge was to use it for an entire day and write a narrative paper about the experience.
I was always such a curious person. So was it really a surprise for me to take up such a rare proposition? I couldn’t help it; it intrigued me.
An article from the student newspaper two weeks ago reappeared in my mind― it was promoting an area on-campus called the Disability Resource Center (DRC) that provided wheelchairs to students who needed them. After class I walked across campus to Morehead Hall, where the article mentioned the center was located, and took the stairs to the office on the third floor. There was a dark-haired woman behind a desk, and I politely explained to her about the class experiment I wanted to conduct and how it would be worth a portion of my grade. She seemed a bit reluctant, explicating that it was for medical purposes only and that she didn’t want me to damage or lose it.
I wasn’t sure why, but I panicked at the thought of not being able to conduct this test. Giving up wasn’t an option for me, and I certainly wasn’t going to without a fight.
I began to lay the charm on a little thick― only slightly on the threshold of begging―and made her a promise that I would only keep the chair for one day. The woman pursed her lips in consideration, and I tilted my head to the side, my eyes wide with innocence. To my enthusiasm, she soon surrendered to my proposal with a quiet sigh; she raised her rigid pointer finger in the air and sternly echoed my words: “One day.”
“I promise! Thank you so much!” I exclaimed, grinning and nodding fiercely.
The woman left the desk and walked into another room, and a few minutes later she returned with a large apparatus of metal and vinyl. Unnervingly I stared at its restrictive iron skeleton; tough, leathery core; and large, protruding wheels. I had to admit, the contraption intimidated me a little.
I boarded my new vehicle, settling comfortably in its cushiony seat. My hands roved over the wheels’ smooth surface and experimented with their controls; pull backward to move ahead, push forward to go in reverse, veer on either side to turn left or right. The chair was actually very easy to move around. I always assumed that a wheelchair would be hard to move because of my body weight resting on it; contrarily, it glided effortlessly and required little strength.
With one last gesture of thanks, I wheeled away from the lenient woman and made my way towards the elevator. As I propelled toward those automatic double doors, I stopped short near the flight of stairs I glimpsed on the way there. Just a few minutes ago I was able to walk up these very steps to get to the third floor without even thinking― it was as easy as breathing. As I looked over the edge of the first step, what once looked like a simple uncomplicated task was now a hazardous obstacle of deathly proportions. I shuddered in my chair and accelerated towards the comforting elevator.
Honestly, using the chair was quite fun. It was definitely an amusing change from walking; getting to College Hall became less of a chore and more of a ride.
When I reached the accessible main entrance of the building, I strode into the elevator and moved up to the third floor where my Roman Civilization class was held. As soon as I rolled into the classroom, dozens of eyes aimed toward my metal frame― different emotions were strewn across every pair. The most prevalent were surprise and curiosity, and I assumed that this was because my classmates had never seen me in a wheelchair before today. A close second was pity and alienation. I felt like an inferior creature at the mercy of their eyes. Some people even looked away, but it was hard to tell if it was because they felt bad for staring or because they couldn’t stand to look. There were also a handful of people who didn’t seem to notice or care, which eased my discomfort a little. Well, at least until I remembered the types of desks that were in this classroom: they were the kind that had the chair soldered to them. Professor M had to exit to another classroom to fetch a detached desk for me, while I waited awkwardly at the front of the classroom for a few minutes. One person was brave enough to ask me what happened to my legs, and I made up a rather convincing story about having minor spinal problems that would keep me in a wheelchair for a few days. I figured that telling people the truth would negate the purpose of my experiment.
Eventually Professor M came back, carrying my desk and placing it in the front of the middle row for me. I felt really bad― and somewhat embarrassed, to be honest― for making him go through all the trouble, but expressed how utterly grateful I was for the favor. He gave me a smile, a nod, and a “you’re very welcome,” and began with his lecture. The class dragged on for what seemed like much more than the mandatory two and a half hours, and occasionally I felt laser eyes burn holes through my metal body. I stared straight ahead at the blackboard for the rest of the class.
The rest of the day continued in this fashion; I found myself paying more attention to other people’s reactions, and small deeds now became big challenges or inconveniences. Some people walked by me without acknowledging my contrivance, whereas others couldn’t help but stare or act overly helpful, such as constantly offering to carry my books or open doors for me. Using the bathroom was considerably difficult, given that my upper body strength was pathetic and transferring from my chair to the toilet and back again took a lot of it. Using the shuttle bus to get across campus was a hassle as well― it took a couple of minutes to get me inside via the wheelchair lift, and I could hear the grumbling of other students as I held up the bus. When boarding the train, I needed to ask a conductor to place down a bridge plate to fill the gap between the train and the platform. And when I finally reached my house, I pulled out my cell phone and called my three brothers outside to lift me up the porch steps. Being home was the most difficult part of the experience; I lived in a two story colonial house with no elevator or ramp. I constantly relied on my brothers and my stepdad to help me up and down the stairs, while I needed my mom to help me use the toilet, get in the bathtub, and even rest on my bed.
I could feel their frustration with their every grunt and heave. I never felt more like a burden than I did that day.
When I awoke the next morning, I looked out my window to find my neighborhood caught in the middle of a fervent blizzard. My neighbors outside were shoveling snow that reached up to their knees, so I was pretty certain that the university would be closed. However, as overjoyed as I was, I knew that there was no possible way for me to return the wheelchair like I had promised. And then I considered: since I have the wheelchair for a few more days, should I continue with the experiment? I knew my family wouldn’t be too happy about that. Even I had to admit that I probably wouldn’t completely enjoy it, either. But I knew a chance like this wouldn’t come every day. I wanted to know more…
Damn my curiosity. Damn it to hell.
The plus side to being a paraplegic on a snowy, school-free, four-day weekend was that I didn’t have to shovel a foot and a half of snow. The downside? I couldn’t have snowball fights with my brothers or hang outside with my friends. Even though most of the snow had been shoveled by Saturday, some of the sidewalks were still relatively icy; just the thought of wheeling on them made me shiver more than the winter wind. So instead I spent my weekend indoors.
When Monday morning finally came, I rolled my way back onto the train― with a little help from a kind conductor―and back on campus to Morehead Hall. The dark-haired woman was sitting behind the desk again, and thankfully she understood why I had to break my promise to her. For the first time in days I stretched my legs out of their rest and bent them, my stiff bones gently cracking in relief. My left foot slowly set itself on the floor, followed by my right foot, and with a slight wobble I was able to stand upright. It felt so incredibly odd. The woman was no longer at eye-level anymore; I had to tilt my head down to look at her now. The walls and furniture around me used to tower over me, but now I felt equal with them.
Equal… I hadn’t felt that way since the last time I was in this very same room.
Not only was I physically different, I was treated differently and had to do things differently because of it. Never before had I been stared at so much, or been asked to receive help on the simplest things that I could still do for myself even on a wheelchair. I required special attention in class, on buses and trains, and even in my own house. I was constantly annoyed by those who saw me as incompetent and underprivileged. Contrarily, I was still able to do plenty of things I normally did without the chair: go to class, commute to and from school, and do household chores like washing the dishes and vacuuming the carpet. Even though I had some setbacks and needed a little help, I was normal, too.
Well, maybe normal’s not quite the right word… rather, I was human. No more or less special than any other. And neither was anyone else, and I took a stand to see it that way.
One would have no idea what it is like to live your life in a wheelchair. I decided to use my grandmother’s wheelchair and try it out for myself. I wanted to see people’s reactions and how they treated me, if any differently at all. I wanted to see how much more difficult a disabled persons life is. For example, if a building is not wheelchair accessible, that causes a problem. Also, if the building is accessible, how inconvenient it is to enter the building.
During class Eric and I left to go out on our mission. He started to push me around the campus and I immediately started to see people staring already. It was a very uncomfortable feeling that I was getting from people glancing at me, and even staring. I can’t imagine what it is like to not be able to move your legs and be stuck in the wheel chair all day. Also, you have to constantly deal with people and the way they treat you.
As I was being pushed around through the cafeteria on campus heads were turning and looking at me. I went through the kitchen and got myself a soda. As I went to pay for the soda the cashier gladly accepted my money. However, instead of handing me my receipt, she went to give it to Patrick, who was pushing me around. I thought that was very disrespectful and I could not come up with a reason to why she would have done that. Just because a person is in a wheelchair for whatever reason, does not mean that they are not capable of purchasing their own foods and handling their own receipts.
As we left the kitchen and moved back into the eating area, we passed a table that seemed to have something to say. I’m not quite sure what exactly was said but it was something derogatory towards disabled people. We decided not to say anything to the people at the table because we did not want to cause a scene and start an altercation. However, it would never be wrong to stand up for what is right.
I was so irritated with how people could treat you just because you are in a wheelchair. People didn’t even have to say anything because the expression on their faces said it all. Just to get into the student center we had to go down to the ramp on the side of the building. We then were on the bottom floor of the student center when we entered and had to use the elevator to get to the ground floor where my classmates were waiting. Exiting the elevator was an experience as well. As odd as it may seem, just getting out of the elevator and seeing people already there waiting for me (my classmates) to arrive must be an awful feeling. I couldn’t feel enough sympathy for the people that have to go through this all the time.
People with disabilities must be so mentally strong to be able to go through what they do each and every day. After class, Patrick was kind enough to push me around campus a little longer. We went around some buildings and I was noticing a little less reactions. At this time people seemed to try to pretend as if I wasn’t there. They would not look at me, but glance and then immediately look down. We got into an elevator and as we entered there was a young man and a middle aged woman already in the elevator. The young man stayed silent, but however the woman looked at me and asked me if I was okay. Patrick and I looked at each other in confusion as to what she may have meant by that question. I answered with a simple yes I’m okay and the rest of the elevator ride was silent.
I was able to get a lot out of the experience because I put myself in the position that a disabled person is in and I learned from it. I never knew how difficult things are. For example just getting into a building may be a challenge. Also, how easy it may be to have your feelings hurt form a person’s reaction to you.
Eric, who also did this task of being in a wheelchair, was able to get a wheelchair that he can move himself with. I watched Eric move around by himself. I had a class with him prior to writing class, so I was able to see some people’s reaction to him. In the classroom, everyone knew Eric was not disabled, so the reactions were not as serious. It was quickly known that it was a class project, but still watching Eric go through the difficulties on his own was a good experience as well.
In my opinion, people should be put in that position as a learning experience. People in this world can be very cruel. Maybe if some people tried this experience out for themselves would learn to be more respectful and less cruel. Hopefully people would start to treat people with disabilities as equal to everyone else, and not any differently as they do now.