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View from wheelchair should not be overlooked

October 11, 2005|by SARAH BROWN

Editor's note: Writer Sarah Brown does not need to use a wheelchair, but she spent a day in one at school to see what perspective could be gained.

My day in a wheelchair in Boonsboro High School had just begun when my friend Sienna saw me. "Do you need help?" she asked as I tried out my new wheels.

Then I looked up the long, long ramp connecting Boonsboro's gymnasium to the library and cafeteria and other rooms in between.

I am an independent person. I like to do my own thing. This "help" thing was new to me, but I accepted it.

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Sienna pushed me up the long ramp through a sea of hurried high school students pushing and shoving their way past other hurried high school students in a very narrow hall.

At last, I saw a familiar face in the crowd and smiled up at one of my good friends. She gave me one quick glance, saw I was someone in a wheelchair, stuck her nose up in the air, and walked on.

I was shocked. She hadn't even realized I was one of her best friends. She had just seen the wheelchair, and that said it all for her.

It was then that I realized that this day in a wheelchair wouldn't be what I had expected. It was supposed to show me what it is like from the perspective of someone in a wheelchair. And it taught me more than I expected. It would not be a day of having an excuse to be late to every class, and to be chauffeured around the school like some sort of royalty. I thought it would be anything other than what it turned out to be: a reality check.

Reality check No. 1: People are prejudiced toward people confined to wheelchairs.

My epiphany caused me to think, "Forget this," hop out of that thing and walk away. But I stayed in the wheelchair and continued on with my day.

My next obstacle occurred when I arrived at my locker. I looked up longingly at the high shelf holding my books and pondered how I would go about getting them.

Sienna and another friend of mine, Emily, both reached up simultaneously to get them for me.

Reality check No. 2: Lockers and wheelchairs do not mix.

Reality check No. 3: I have some truly awesome friends.

After the locker episode I was faced with yet another obstacle: finding a route to my first class that did not involve steps. Emily tried wheeling me through the cafeteria and through the hallway, only to find stairs at the end.

As the bell rang, we wheeled back through the cafeteria, down the ramp, out the door, up another ramp, through the parking lot, and up yet another ramp into the portable classroom.

When we finally managed to get the door open and me through it, I was bombarded with a surge of stares and worried students all shouting, "What happened?" and, "Oh my gosh, Sarah! What did you do?"

Emily went on to her own class while I tried to answer the questions all at once, while trying to get behind my desk without breaking anything.

Reality check No. 4: Wheelchair-friendly routes are few and far between.

Midway through a class, I realized I had to go to the bathroom.

"Great," I thought. I looked at one of my best friends, Laurel, with an anxious look and told her the good news.

We informed the teacher that my bladder was about to explode, and he signed our hall pass. Laurel maneuvered me out of the classroom and back through my previous route to the bathroom.

When we finally reached our destination, I wheeled myself up to the big stall and attempted to roll in. No dice. As it turns out, the so-called "handicapped accessible" bathroom is not all that accessible.

So, I cheated.

I don't know how people do it when they cannot cheat.

Reality check No. 5: Accessible bathrooms? Ha! (It turns out the Boonsboro High School's teachers bathroom has been modified to be handicapped accessible, but no one told me until the end of the day.)

The rest of my classes went pretty much the same way as first period: Explain myself and try to get behind my desk without smashing anybody's toes (including my own).

The day didn't have any unusual interruptions until my fourth and final period. Just as I thought the day was pretty much over, and that it went well, I arrived in band class.

Mr. Wilcox, the band director, looked at me when my friend Elizabeth wheeled me up to the drum major podium. He asked me to get out of the wheelchair, but I refused. Eventually, he gave up and I sat next to our drum major, Ashley, and baked in the sun while the rest of the band tediously practiced new routines.

Reality check No. 6: There are A LOT of limitations on what one can do when confined to a wheelchair.

After band was over, Tommy, a fellow band geek, attempted to wheel me up the huge hill back to the school, but I wouldn't let him because it was too steep and dangerous.

And so, with nine-tenths of the band already up the hill and halfway to the band room, I wheeled my lonely self up a less imposing, still steep hill, taking breaks every minute or so to relieve my aching arms.

Just as I thought I was about to lose the battle to exhaustion, I was rescued by Shane, a freshman.

Reality check No. 7: People tend to ignore people in wheelchairs when they need to be noticed.

Finally, the day was over. After thanking Shane for getting me back up to the school, I wheeled myself into the band room, and arose from the chair.

Relieved to stand again, I dragged my borrowed wheelchair - loaned by Boonsboro High School secretary Jayne Moore - up the steps and to my locker and retrieved my book bag and homework with a newfound appreciation for my health.

I had never in a million years thought that being in a wheelchair for one school day would open my eyes to so many things. I learned about my friends. I realized I had been prejudiced toward people in wheelchairs, but I had experienced - however briefly - what it was like to be cast aside, ignored - things that many people with disabilities cannot walk away from.

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