I am not physically disabled. A few weeks ago, however, I got a glimpse into the challenges that individuals with disabilities face. During a disability simulation in my special education class, I took a short walk (or, in this case, ride) in someone else’s shoes.
Not only did this experience expand my worldview, but it also helped me to understand some of the strengths and weaknesses in the accessibility of the Elizabethtown College campus.
When I walked into my education classroom the day of the simulation, I was equal parts excited and nervous. As a future educator, I wanted to be able to understand my future students and the challenges they would face, including any disabilities they might have.
I had also never done anything like this before. I wondered, “Will people stare? Will they laugh?” My list contained three items: speech impairment, hearing impairment and wheelchair-bound. I stuck wax in my ears to deafen the words of my peers. After cramming five pieces of Dubble Bubble into my mouth, I could barely open my jaw to grunt.
We were split into groups of four, and one of my classmates brought over a wheelchair for me to sit in. Initially, I remember being annoyed—I couldn’t go anywhere unless the girl pushing my chair wanted to go there, too.
Half of the time, I couldn’t hear what my group was saying, and it took too much effort to respond coherently to what I did hear. Of course, that was when the lightbulb moment happened.
The groups were given a list of tasks to complete around campus. My group set off, heading toward the library at a brisk pace. Then we had to slow down.
The path between Nicarry and the library had a sharp incline, and it was tricky to navigate in the wheelchair. Some of the other students in my group also had arthritis (simulated by putting beans in their shoes). Eventually, we made it to the library.
Those majestic heated steps posed too much of a challenge for the chair, so we had to go around to the wheelchair ramp on the side, which involved covering more ground on the incline. Previously, I had not known of this ramp’s existence.
Our two most difficult tasks involved the gym. First, we went into the back of the Jaywalk. Or, at least, we tried. The automatic button on the outer door didn’t work when we pushed it.
This resulted in a complicated operation in which the girl pushing my chair tried both to hold open the door and push me through it. Thankfully, some bystanders gave us a hand and opened the door from the inside.
Then it was on to the gym bathroom. My job was to go into the handicap-accessible stall. This quickly turned from a simple task to a daunting challenge.
It was nearly impossible to fit into the stall since it was located at the front of the bathroom and quite narrow. After some elaborate methods of maneuvering, we gave up and went back to our classroom.
When our class reconvened for a period of reflection, it became obvious that other students faced similar obstacles. Complaints ranged from narrow fits on ramps to challenges in accessing certain parts of campus in a timely fashion.
We concluded that while the campus does have quite a few accommodations to assist individuals with disabilities, there is always room to grow. The College, like most of the world, was built for non-disabled people.
Even with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) policies in place, the narrow stall and the broken button prove that we are not a completely handicap-accessible campus.
The disability simulation taught me two things. First, it’s important to walk—or wheel—in someone else’s shoes, even just during an 80-minute class period. Second, all students with disabilities will face challenges.
If we can take strides toward improving even the smallest aspects of campus, whether it involves repairing a button or widening a stall, it can make a greater impact than we would imagine.
I don’t mean to demean the work that has already been done by Etown. Like I said before, I am not disabled and do not truly have a grip on what it means to face these challenges daily. What I do know is that anyone can be an advocate.
If there’s something broken or difficult to access, pointing out the problem is the first step toward fixing it. In all areas of accessibility and beyond, I propose that the College try to minimize the challenges we face in any way it can.