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A Day in a (Wheel)chair

Friday, November 8, 2013

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Written by Alice Lin

On November 6, 13 student leaders signed up to spend a typical day in a wheelchair in an effort to raise awareness about accessibility on campus. The event is part of the CSA’s United for Equity campaign, striving to challenge discrimination on various levels. Among the student participants, the President of the University, Alastair Summerlee also took part in the event alongside the Vice President of Student Affairs, Brenda Whiteside and Scott Hamilton from the U of G Fire Prevention department.

In the morning, the participants got fitted into their wheelchairs and then sent to go about their daily routine on campus. They were also given a task/challenge list that included things like riding the bus, going through doors without an automatic button and carrying a beverage or food tray at the cafeteria. After spending nearly six hours in a wheelchair, the participants regrouped in the afternoon for reflection.

The session began with Jenny McLean, the University’s director of Health and Performance Centre sharing the story of how she was injured. McLean suffered a spinal cord injury back in 2003 while on a hike, when she slipped and plummeted over 100 feet off a cliff. “Being in a wheelchair is the easy part. Living with it is what's difficult” said McLean. “People often ask me if I hate my wheelchair…I don’t. I love my wheelchair!” McLean shared, “it enables me to navigate about the world and do what I want to”.

Student leaders then shared their experiences throughout the day and expressed their difficulties in navigating the Guelph campus that they were normally accustomed to in their able-body form. Majority of the group felt that the experience was extremely hard on the body and that their arms had “felt like noodles” only after a couple of hours. “I’ve hit my elbows several times going through doors, so my elbows feel a bit sore right now…” said the CSA Human Resources & Operations Commissioner, Charles Hamilton.

The CSA Communications and Corporate Affairs Commissioner, Chris Archibald, shared his challenge he faced when taking a trip to the bathroom. “It took me about ten minutes in the washroom. Three of those minutes were me trying to figure out how to go about doing this strategically” said Archibald.

David Alton, a CSA Board Representative shared that he had realized that his chair had a flat tire. “That’s reality,” said McLean “life changes dramatically when things like this happens and we just have to learn to cope and adapt to it”.

The President of the College of Biological Sciences Student Council, Fatima Chleilat, had class in the MacDonald Institute building following the morning wheelchair fitting and had a long journey to the building. “I realized that the MINS building wasn’t exactly accessible and I had to go all the way around to PJ’s just getting to the right building for my class. Chileat was late for class, but received positive feedback and help from her professor and classmates.

However, McLean raised an important subject that there were instances where help was not always necessary, and asked if anyone experienced it. “I had an incident as I was going up a steep hill…when this man come flying out of nowhere to push me up the hill. I kept on saying thank you, but the pushing wasn’t actually helping me,” said McLean, “I had to ask him to take a couple of steps back”.

Kimberly Snider, Vice President of the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences Student Alliance, was getting off the bus stop near Creelman when it started to rain. Snider forgot her jacket at the time and was approached by a kind gentleman for help. “I thanked him and told him it’s alright. He also offered me his umbrella and I said it’s fine but he insisted that I take his umbrella!” Archibald also shared a similar experience. “People kind of just open the door for you and it’s really nice,” said Archibald, “but I was putting on my jacket and putting my gloves on when I see this girl just holding the door open. I told her to just go ahead and that I was going to take a couple of minutes but she insisted on waiting”.

“A simple ‘may I help you’ is a really nice starting point” said McLean.

There were of course, countless stares at the individuals in a wheelchair, though mostly out of curiosity. “I felt like people stared at me, then down at my legs to try to figure out what was wrong with me” said Nathan Lachowsky, a Graduate student representative on the Student Senate Caucus. “When I was on the bus, I had to sit facing the rest of the bus and when I looked up, I just see all eyes on me. It was intimidating, so I just looked down at my phone” said Snider. “The breaks on my chair also aren’t working, so I had to grip on to dear life on the bus at times!”

When an able-bodied person encounters somebody in a wheelchair, there is an inherent level of sensitivity that is being applied to language. “Is the term ‘walk’ appropriate? Should we say ‘roll’ instead?” asked Samantha Jones, the Bachelor of Applied Sciences Student Senator. Jones was one of the students that helped organize this event. “I found pre-injury, I was more aware but as time goes on I just forget” McLean responded.

It’s really phenomenal to see how the wheelchair has really grown to become more than an extension of the body, but is in fact a part of the body. “At first, I was hesitant in signing up because I knew it was going to be challenging” admitted Snider. “I found the overall experience very eye-opening. I got to see the physical and social barriers to accessibility on campus,” said Snider, “I think it’s really important to share this experience with others in order to deal with this issue systematically at a higher level”.

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