Walking in my shoes may give students another perspective about disabilities

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Adjusting to attending classes with a physical disability
Posted Thursday, September 23, 2004 - 12:00am

If you saw someone having trouble climbing a staircase, would you think anything of it? Now put some crutches in their hands. Would you pay more attention to them? Many of us don't think about it, but it's amazing what an impact a disability can have on a college student.

I have an interesting perspective on such things. A while back, I hurt myself on the job and needed a cane most of the year. Before my accident, time and again I had seen a fellow student on crutches or with a wheelchair. I never really thought about how a physical handicap could affect someone, until I found myself in their shoes.

One obvious change is movement. Where once I could easily run from one class to another in 10 minutes, now it is an almost impossible task. With winter around the corner, the thought of moving across icy sidewalks and climbing snowy stairs looms over me like a threat. Another problem is the weather. A cold day can be murder on an aching joint or injury.

You may think taking an elevator or ramp would make travel easier. Let me tell you now that both cause just as many problems. Elevators can be hard to locate, and once found, they tend to be slower than taking the stairs. As for ramps, in winter they can become a deadly sheet of ice. In the summer, while no longer slippery, some ramps have steep angles or odd layouts. Again it becomes quicker to just take a staircase, despite the extra pain it will cause.

Classrooms can become a problem. Isles are made for regular students, and a cane set alongside my desk will only trip a fellow-student. Instead I must sit on the outermost row, if only to keep from endangering my friends. While it isn't the biggest inconvenience, it can leave me at a bad angle for seeing or hearing the instructor.

Another big change is in the students. People treat me kindly one day, then avoid me the next when they notice my cane. I tend to feel like a walking disaster area because of such treatment, and wonder if people are afraid my injury is contagious. I've had to convince many people that they are safe walking the same hallway as me, not to mention sitting in the same room.

Of course people lean the other way as well. Put that black walkingstick in my hand, and suddenly I'm a china doll ready to break. People constantly ask if I'm feeling well or need anything. If I wince while climbing a stairway, they practically threaten to pick me up and carry me upstairs or to an elevator. Instead of helping, such over-attention leaves me feeling awkward and childlike.

I never realized how much I took for granted before my physical injury. While many things have changed, I still try to live a normal life. I still have goals, dreams and dedication. I hope that one day people will stop treating me differently than they did before, but then I was once in the same position. Maybe people need to put themselves in other people's shoes just a bit more often.

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