Simple Steps Grow Near-Insurmountable for Students in Wheelchairs
LOCK HAVEN, Pa. (AP) _ Standing upright, Michelle Keiser and Lynne Anne Gibson are models of health. But put the same women in wheelchairs and they become objects of pity, scorn and ridicule.
Peter Matthews, the director of Lock Haven University’s special education and childhood education departments, makes his students spend 24 hours in a wheelchair as part of a class on the physically disabled.
Rolling down hills, struggling through doors and absorbing harsh stares, the students see life from the other side of physical health.
″We’re only an accident away from being in the realm of the disabled,″ Matthews said.
Matthews has required wheelchair duty of his students since 1978. In the late 1980s, Judith Elliott, an assistant professor of recreation, began requiring her students to spend four hours rolling instead of walking.
″What are some of the barriers - in attitudes and physically?″ Elliott asked. ″It’s easy to talk about how hilly this campus is, but wait until you get into a wheelchair.″
Keiser and Gibson, seniors in special education, were teamed together for their days confined to a wheelchair. One rode while the other walked.
″You get a lot of stares or pitiful looks,″ said Gibson, from Cammal, Pa., who visited a department store in the wheelchair. ″Some guy yells at me, driving by in a work truck, ’Get yourself out of that chair and walk.‴
Others yelled at her, thinking she was deaf, or looked at Keiser while addressing Gibson. ″People take a single condition and assume then that all other things are wrong with them,″ Matthews said.
Children were intrigued that Keiser, pushing herself through a grocery store, couldn’t get up and walk on her own. She said her own son wanted rides when she showed up at home in a wheelchair.
The courses’ objectives, in part, are to make students more comfortable around people with disabilities, the teachers said. In two past classes, two women assigned to wheelchairs broke up with their fiances after discussions on how the men would feel if they were disabled, Matthews said.
Since Matthews began the course - and thanks to new federal regulations - the university has had to make changes on campus.
Wheelchair users formerly had to leave the student union if they wanted to go from one level to another. Now an inside ramp provides access. For a six- story building on campus, though, the disabled are required to get a key to ride a service elevator between floors.
″They should have someone in a wheelchair around during the designing of a building,″ Gibson said.
In addition to the physical and mental barriers, the students have found their own bodies’ limitations. Two years into the project, Matthews wrote in ″Rehabilitation Literature″ a list of complaints that students filed after their wheelchair rides. The complaints are similar today.
″Lack of sufficient arm strength was a common problem,″ he wrote in the May-June 1980 issue. ″Arms got so tired that people could not move them. Hands became raw and blistered. Buttocks and legs constantly felt like pins and needles and became numb. Backaches and neckaches were common.″
On the whole, though, the students realized that disabled people have limited access to things able-bodied people take for granted.
″I had never had to deal with anyone my age in a wheelchair,″ said Brian Zarbatany, a junior in recreation from Phillipsburg, N.J. ″Now you see it from the other side. You never see how many things need to be changed until you’ve done it.″