Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Staff Perspective: A New Understanding

By Jenna Drollette, CDPAP Assistant

For most of my life I have had numerous encounters with people who are “differently abled.” I've seen many of their struggles. But I have never experienced them first hand. I have always experienced them by observing and assisting. Which allowed me to have compassion and empathy but limited my ability to have a full understanding of how they view the world as someone who is distinctive. This only partially prepared me for today's undertaking. Or so I thought. My friend Jacky, who lives her daily life in the “differently abled” community, and I decided to conduct an experiment to help me see things from her perspective.

I started the day with a struggle right off. The sidewalks had a layer of snow on them that was quite difficult to propel a wheelchair through. My hands were cold, and it took quite a bit of my strength, but I pushed through it. A few times during the day people that knew about this project asked me; why I chose the day after a snowstorm to do this, or why didn't I wait until the spring. Honestly, I did have a choice. I could have waited for a nicer day. But I simply told them that someone who is “differently abled” doesn't have the choice. I wanted to get the full experience, no matter what the obstacle may be.

3 dimensional stick figure in a wheelchair at the bottom of a flight of stairs
Once we arrived at the Angell College Center (ACC) from Macdonough Hall, we headed to get breakfast. One of the first things I noticed, while we waited in line to order our food, was the way people reacted around us. Some would stare in what seemed like wonder, and some looked and then looked away or put their head down and avoided looking again. When Jacky and I first met, when she was a freshman, I had noticed this reaction in people. As the semesters passed the looks seemed to dissipate. Was it because they eventually got comfortable with her there? Maybe. Today was very similar to then. A new person that is different. Should we look? Should we avoid because she is visibly different? Only people who recognized me, and people I had spoken to before approached me and asked questions.

The snow on the sidewalk and the strange looks were just some challenges I faced throughout the day. The doors I came upon seemed to be problematic for me as well. I have a new appreciation for the automatic/power doors that allow for easier access into a building. Unfortunately, not all the doors had buttons and not all the buttons to open the doors worked. When I came upon the first power door with a dead button, at Kehoe, I was kind of shocked and a bit angry at the fact that one of the few accessible entrances was not accessible. I struggled to open a heavy door without the aid of my body weight to pull. Then I struggled to hold the door with one hand and maneuver my wheelchair into the doorway. Luckily, a young man came over and did his best to hold the door for Jacky and I. That young man was the first stranger to offer help when there was an obvious struggle.

For the next few hours I was around people who I have spoken to before, or have seen before. Most were Jacky's classmates, and know I am with Jacky often. So my next undertaking was my lack of comfort. As I said earlier, I was trying to get the full experience. So I had done my best to not use my legs to aid me in any way. I would move my feet slightly on the foot rests, but I didn't stand up or cross my legs like I usually do for comfort. Sitting in one position for so many hours was becoming slightly painful. All I allowed myself to do was use my arms to lift my bottom off the seat to a different spot. But there was really nowhere to move to ease my discomfort. For me, this was a challenge. Being able bodied, when my body gets uncomfortable or in pain, I can easily change position or stretch to feel better. But, again, to get everything from this experience, I endured it.

I found myself experiencing an array of emotions throughout the day. I started the day with a fierce determination, even when I was faced with the difficult task of pushing myself through the snow. After coming across more people, experienced confusion and then taken aback by their reaction to me. Coming to the dead door button, I was shocked, defeated, and angry that this is the reality for many who are “differently abled.” I was happy and relieved to find that there were some people who would provide assistance, but was disappointed that the number was so few. The majority of people would just pass by, when they witness me struggling. At the end of the day I was still determined, but I was exhausted too.

Overall, I found that throughout my experiences, and with my awareness of some of the struggles Jacky faces, I was given a deeper sense on how much I don’t understand. I have come to see that I have taken my ableness for granted, in some sense. In reflection, I have come to realize that a day in a wheelchair, for me, is just that. I am an able bodied person, and will only be able to get the full experience if I am not. But I now possess a deeper knowledge of this life. I have a grown admiration for the life of a person who is “differently abled.” Through this experience, I found that I am now changed. I have a new view on the world, and I am humbled by it. These people face many struggles, but they aren’t defined by them. People are not one dimensional beings, we are made up of multiple identities and experiences. A physical aid does not define a person, but is just one facet of a multitude of their identities.