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When OTs Wore White Shoes

Wheelchair Wonders

Published February 4, 2014 8:30 PM by Debra Karplus
I came to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in August 1970 as a freshman; I was immediately accepted into the occupational therapy program.  At the time, I had no clue that the UIUC campus was one of the first nationwide to be wheelchair accessible, and had the reputation for being the nation's most accessible campus.   Thanks to pioneer and visionary, Timothy Nugent, 1948 marked the start of wonderful things to come for University students, staff, and faculty with disabilities. 

Nugent, known internationally for his accomplishments, was a Professor in the Division of Rehabilitation Education Services (DRES) for many years until his 1985 retirement.  A comprehensive program for people with disabilities was his mission and he made it happen.  He founded the first wheelchair basketball team, The Gizz Kids, at the UIUC.  Cut out curbs on campus as well as wheelchair ramps and public buses with wheelchair lifts are all results of Nugent's doings.  Professor Nugent is still around and must be close to ninety years old; last time I was at the symphony I spotted Professor Nugent and his occupational therapist wife, a healthy-looking ambulatory couple.

On campus in a wheelchair

In one of my college classes at the Rehab Center we were required to spend an entire day on campus in a wheelchair.  It sounded like a fun and novel idea but also scary.  The class convened and we were quickly assigned our wheelchairs.  These were not custom fitted chairs in any way, just bottom-of-the -line wheelchairs with no special features or bells and whistles.

I have a clear recollection of my observations on that balmy day over forty years ago.  I am typically one of those people, both then and now, who seems to move at a pace that is speedier than most people; getting around in a wheelchair is considerably slower than walking, (unless you are like my friend Betty who uses a power wheelchair and loves to go "walking" with me because she knows I just can't keep up with her when she is in high gear).  Besides the slowness of propelling yourself in a wheelchair, seeking accessible routes, at least for the first time, is a deliberate process and takes time.

 I also quickly observed that propelling a wheelchair, especially up ramps, is extremely hard work.  I have always been pleased to be in good health and reasonably strong, especially from riding a bicycle and playing tennis.  But that day on campus in a wheelchair was a real workout and my shoulders ached for days.

Perhaps, most notable, when using a wheelchair is that your interaction with other people is not face-to-face or eye-to eye.  You are looking into their belly unless they bend over or sit down to interact with you.  And even more discouraging than that is that when in a wheelchair, you often become "invisible" to ambulatory folks.

I think spending a day in a wheelchair should become part of every high school curriculum (or elementary school) is increase disability awareness.

posted by Debra Karplus

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