Saturday, April 23, 2011

Thoughts from a wheelchair: the Special Education project that changed my life.

This is the blog I posted on my Sparkpage, and I wanted to share it with the rest of you. It needs no explanation, and most of you knew I was going to do this project anyway.

Ignored. Rejected. Small. Embarrassed. Helpless. Second class.

These are just a few of the emotions I felt as I did my project for my Special Education class. The assignment was to either A) observe a special ed classroom for a minimum of 10 hours and report on what you see or B) find a way to "be handicapped" for a day to see how you feel and how others treat you. I opted for B. I feel like doing project A may have been the easy way out. I wanted to put myself in the place of someone who is wheelchair bound to see the challenges they really faced.

I called up my church earlier this week and they gave me permission to borrow one of their wheelchairs for Thursday afternoon. My dad and I went to a mall in a neighboring town and I wheeled around the mall for a couple of hours.

I will say that my arms are still slightly bruised from pushing the chair for even two hours. My muscles aren't sore, but my lower arms definitely have bruises. My shoulders were sore, too.

The wheelchair wasn't hard to control, which I was slightly surprised about. I figured it would be so hard that I couldn't do it very well and my dad would have to push me. Within a few minutes I could wheel around and turn with enough ease to pass as someone who was actually wheelchair bound. The first thing I realized was how weird it felt to be so low - to be way beneath everyone else's line of sight. Not only that, but it was strange to not be able to see the top shelves in stores. That was part of the "helplessness" I felt.

Another thing I noticed right away is how practically everyone ignores you. Our society is very self centered - but when I went to Petsmart immediately after my project I noticed that I got way more eye contact when I was walking vs. being in the wheelchair. In fact, in the chair I got maybe a half dozen people to actually meet my gaze the entire afternoon. If anyone looked at me, it was from a distance, and when I wheeled up to them they did whatever they could to look anywhere but down at me. I thought I was overreacting, but my dad noticed it, too.

Maybe it was because my dad was with me, or at least near me, but hardly any store employees ever approached me to see if I needed help. Or even the typical "hi" that employees usually give anyone when they walk in. In two stores - The Buckle and the Disney Store - an employee said hi to my dad and I, asked how "we" were doing, but only looked at my dad. A young girl in Bath & Body Works did tell me that if I needed "an extra hand" to let her know and she'd be happy to help. But she was the only one.

While I was in that store, I was going to ask someone for help reaching something. But you know what? I was actually too embarrassed. Not because of the project. But because in my position, I felt embarrassed to ask for help reaching something. I felt embarrassed that I didn't have the means to reach it myself. And it got me thinking that I bet a lot of wheelchair bound people feel that same way. It made me so sad.

A lot of people whizzed right past me or right in front of me, making ME get out of THEIR way. Obviously it takes a lot more energy and precision to drive myself around someone than it is for them to simply step out of my way. But I had tons of different people of all ages cut me off in stores or in the main mall area. Like I didn't exist.

I went in the Sears department store and I'm not sure if there was an elevator. I'm sure there was an escalator so I'm sure there WAS one, but it wasn't obvious. There was only one elevator in the entire main mall area (but there were at least 4 different sets of escalators). It was so tiring to realize how far I'd have to go if I wanted to transfer floors. It's something you don't think about when you're just walking around a mall - an escalator is usually fairly close to where ever you are. Not so much with elevators.

Speaking of elevators, this mall's elevators were SO TINY that I could barely fit in it. It was really difficult to turn myself around so I was facing the doors again. It took me many rides in that elevator before I could do it without my dad helping me. There was only one handicapped accessible bathroom, and you had to go down the incredibly long hallway on the second floor, only to find out you had to take an elevator down to the first floor. Once I got down there, I did try to go to the bathroom in the wheelchair. Getting in the stall was easy, but it was a pain having to reach out and shut the door. I spun myself around tons of times and simply could not figure out how to get on the toilet from the chair. So I admit - I did give up. But I tried for a good 5 minutes. Once I was done, I wheeled out to the sink realizing it was almost impossible for me to reach. Handicapped accessible my foot.

Toward the beginning of my project, my dad went to the food court to get coffee. I waited off to the side. An older lady asked me if I was waiting in line. I said, "No, I'm just waiting for my dad." And she said, in a rather rude voice, "Well, it's HARD to tell!" Wow.

I didn't get any other rude comments, but the ignorance and the fact that basically everyone was ignoring me was worse than words. I got a total of two apologetic comments when people got in my way. Both of them were black women (just an interesting observation). One woman in Bath & Body Works waited while I wheeled in front of her, and I thanked her. I just felt to 99% of people there like I didn't exist. Or that I was below them (in more ways than one).

Going to Petsmart without the wheelchair afterwards made me realize just how rejected I felt IN the wheelchair. Everyone in the store was so nice to me, I got lots of smiles, etc. It was just eye opening. I was the same person in the chair as I was standing up, but I was treated so differently.

The next time I see someone in a wheelchair, I'll at least appreciate some of how they feel and how they're treated. I'll at least realize how challenging it is for them to do some things. I wonder if I was like the masses when I'd see someone in a wheelchair before. Obviously I would never ignore someone on purpose, but did I unintentionally?

I know one thing for sure. I'm going to smile at everyone in a wheelchair I see for the rest of my life.

I'm so glad I did this project.

1 comment:

  1. It seems that most of the negative things you experienced were not a result of what people said or did, but what they did NOT say or do. I think sometimes people are so concerned with not staring at someone with a disability, that they don't realize it is just as bad to just walk past someone like they aren't even there!

    When you mentioned the availability of elevators in the mall, and getting from one floor to the next, it made me think about having to locate a restroom in a mall. I know that in some department stores, the restroom for women is only on the first floor and the restroom for men is on the second (or whatever the case may be). It is easy for me to quickly dash around the store looking, but it would be so frustrating to be in a wheelchair and have to ask around and then find an elevator.

    That older lady that complained about you not being in line sounds like she is one of those people that complains about anything. I mean, really? She had to make a comment? I often have to ask someone if they are in line or not, because of where they are standing, and I don't follow it up with a snarky comment like she did! How annoying.

    Great write up!

    I think it would interesting to do the 10 hour classroom observation as well. Maybe you will have the chance to do that as well!