The Wheelchair Experience

The Wheelchair Experience I never imagined what an eye opening experience this was going to be. While conducting a simulation in a wheelchair with my partner Chuck, I had some very interesting, embarrassing, exhausting and informative incidents that I can use to my personal and professional advantage. I will provide an analysis of skills demonstrated while conducting the simulation along with specific examples to enlighten you on the experience. I have taken into consideration the environmental barriers that we experienced along our often-agonizing journey and will present a description of various architectural barriers, ecological barriers, and transportation barriers. Social reactions and personal reactions to the wheelchair experience will be stated thereafter. I will conclude with professional implications and strategies that will help people without disabilities enhance their attitudes about people with disabilities.

Getting oriented with and accustomed to using a wheelchair seemed like it was going to be as easy as getting on a bicycle and pedaling away. At the start of our simulation my partner and I didn’t fully understand how challenging using a non-motorized wheelchair can be. We knew quite well that it doesn’t require an astronaut to operate a wheelchair but we sure had some troubles getting acquainted with the basic functions of the wheelchair we were using (i.e. how to apply the brakes properly). That made us feel like, well, let’s just say that we didn’t feel like the sharpest pencils in the box! We rented a wheelchair from a local medical supply store that was fairly new and had only been used once or twice before, according to the store clerk. When my partner and I set out to begin our wheelchair simulation we both had to grab one armrest from each side of the wheelchair and force it open because it was so rigid.

At that moment we felt like we might have some problems with the wheelchair while conducting our assignment. I began the first four hours of our simulation in the wheelchair and was also first in experiencing some of the difficulties with using the wheelchair. Since it was practically brand new, I was the one who had to break in the wheelchair. The seat of the chair was so uncomfortable and stiff, which made me wonder how my partner and I were going to last four hours each sitting in it. After the first hour my buttocks were aching and my legs went partially numb. This made it challenging for me to concentrate on our simulation, to move around and to remain in the wheelchair for the duration of my time. Since my partner, Chuck, is taller with longer legs than me, he experienced twice the pain and discomfort. Aside from having had difficulties getting accustomed to being in a wheelchair, we also experienced difficulties for lack of knowing how to apply the brakes properly.

I had some pretty embarrassing moments as a result of not knowing how to secure the wheelchair properly using the wheel brakes. My partner and I both took two forms of public transportation (BART and bus) on each of our turns. When I boarded the BART train I found a wheelchair accessible space to station myself and thought that I had put the brakes on securely. When the train started moving I began rolling backwards into to aisle. I kept myself from falling over by grabbing onto one of the train seats. I almost broke character by nearly standing up to prevent myself from falling, which wouldn’t have helped any in an already humiliating situation as passengers looked at this apparently disabled guy in a wheelchair.

As if that wasn’t an embarrassing enough situation for me, a similar situation occurred when I was riding the bus. Positioned facing the front of the bus with a seat belt fastened around my waist, I began plunging forward when the bus hit the brakes to make a stop at an intersection. The only thing this time that kept me from having an utterly degrading experience was that the seat belt around my waist had stretched out to the max and locked up, which prevented me from taking a spill in the middle of a crowded bus. In this situation the bus driver was partially to blame for causing me to nearly fall over because he did not secure one of the wheelchair’s wheels in the wheel safety latch. The safety latch is located underneath the seat of where I was stationed. (I didn’t notice that there was such a safety latch that secures wheelchairs when a bus is in motion, until a bus driver on a different bus secured my partner during his turn in the wheelchair).

It was not until my partner noticed another individual in a wheelchair apply his brakes while waiting for the bus that Chuck and I finally realized how the brakes are properly applied on a wheelchair. It sounds so simple to do, which in fact is, but we found out the hard way. Getting familiar with the functions of the wheelchair and getting used to sitting in it didn’t require much skill; although, maneuvering the wheelchair through crowded Berkeley streets and narrow store aisles did required some skills. One of the crowded streets that we traveled along was Telegraph Ave, which has sidewalks that are packed with people, venders, and newspaper stands. That meant that we quickly had to learn how to steer the wheelchair in different directions as we traveled down the sidewalks. Neither Chuck nor I had ever before used a wheelchair in our lives – and hopefully, never will have to again. Since I had little practice using a wheelchair I was constantly running into things, running over someone’s toes and getting pinned in tight spots. The many clothing racks inside the tiny retail stores along downtown Berkeley streets often caused me to either stop and go around the racks, or carefully make my way past them with little room to maneuver.

It is quite frustrating moving around in a wheelchair in crowded and compact areas, especially if you have to learn as you go and are new to the wheelchair experience. Crowded streets and clothing racks were not the only obstacles that we encountered as my partner and I conducted our wheelchair simulation. We observed several architectural barriers for persons in wheelchairs as we ventured through the Berkeley college campus and city stores. Entering into the majority of the buildings at UC Berkeley was quite frustrating because there is one way in and one way out for those individuals in wheelchairs. There are several entrances in those same buildings but they are not all wheelchair accessible. Entering other buildings in the city, like restaurants and retail stores, were for the most part wheelchair friendly.

In other words, we didn’t have any real trouble getting into restrooms, entering and exiting the buildings, or making our way around the places. Some doorways and store aisles were pretty tight, but with a little caution someone using a wheelchair can manage to get around without any real problems. Something can be done about architectural barriers, but it’s quite another thing to remove or reduce ecological barriers that persons in wheelchairs face, like hilly streets. Expanding a doorway so that a person in wheelchair can fit trough easily may be done easier than leveling hilly streets. In a city like Berkeley, which has many hilly streets, it can be quite exhausting and inconvenient to get around for someone in a wheelchair. My partner and I learned this first hand while pushing each other up and down the streets.

I cannot see how anyone in a non-motorized wheelchair can attend a big college campus like UC Berkeley with all its ups and downs. In fact, I only observed two individuals on campus in wheelchairs and both of them were using motorized ones. The two main sources of public transportation that we took while conducting our simulation were BART and bus. Unlike some of the problems we faced with architectural and ecological barriers, the most significant barrier of taking public transportation is that it’s time consuming. For instance, an individual in a wheelchair spends more time getting from one place to another by taking city buses than a person on foot.

This is a result of having to be loaded and off loaded by the buses lift, which takes about seven minutes to do. If the bus happens to be full of people or have someone in a wheelchair already aboard, the person in a wheelchair waiting to board the bus will have to wait for the next bus. That usually means waiting another 20-30 minutes. My partner and I faced this problem on two separate occasions while taking the buses around town. Even if a person who uses a wheelchair has his or her own wheelchair accessible vehicle, like a close friend of mine does, it still requires more time to travel than for a person not in a wheelchair. While we were out in the public conducting our simulation we didn’t seem to get much negative reaction from other people. People actually showed respect and courtesy toward Chuck and I while we were in the wheelchair.

In fact, the BART attendants and bus drivers didn’t ask us to pay not once to ride the train or bus! Before we began this assignment I thought that we were going to get a lot of strange looks and questions from the public. I thought that I was going to feel awkward and strange being in a wheelchair. As we went along with the simulation, I found that the most uncomfortable feeling that I had about being in the wheelchair was more physical than emotional or mental. First of all, having done this simulation in a wheelchair was an experience that gave me an appreciation for my able body. The second thing that it did for me was giving me a more positive attitude about people in wheelchairs with disability.

Finally, when I’m in the recreation profession I can take this experience and some specific strategies to help people without disabilities develop a more positive attitude about people with disabilities. As a leisure service professional I can help facilitate the acceptance of people with disabilities by all members of my programs by using strategies that promote joint participation between people with and without disabilities, structuring interactions that will improve the attitudes among all participants in my programs, facilitating equal status by including all participants into group activities, and encouraging extensive personal contact between people with and without disabilities intended to increase communication and understanding. This entire wheelchair experience has positively helped me to see from the point of view of a disabled person in a wheelchair. Learning how to get around in a wheelchair and getting accustomed to using it was undoubtedly challenging. Environmental barriers such as architectural, ecological, and transportation barriers limits people in wheelchairs to entering certain buildings, where they can travel to, and how soon they can get to where they are going.

During my wheelchair simulation, I observed that social reactions about a person in a wheelchair are not always negative. My attitude and respect about people with disabilities has increased as a result of conducting this wheelchair simulation. As a recreation professional in the future, I will have learned from this experience to be sensitive and aware of people with disabilities in my programs and incorporate strategies to help people without disabilities improve the attitudes about people with disabilities.

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