College of Allied Health Professions

Barriers

by Fran Higgins 5/31/2011

It started with a simple email request from Dawn, a member of the PT faculty: “Wanna get some exercise today? I need to get about 4-5 wheelchairs from the Student Life Center (SLC) over to the hospital ward of the Clinical Skills Lab in Sorrell today.” This seemed to fit in with my new PT specific duties, and besides, I could use the exercise and the sun was shining, so I volunteered.

The walk was pleasant – sunny and breezy – as five of us (Dawn, Tammy, Anne, Laura, and I) set out up the hill. We strolled up the steps of the student plaza, past blooming roses and petunias, past the Kaneko dangos, past the James Carpenter light tower and the new Harold M. and Beverly Maurer Center for Public Health with its lovely landscaping, and into the SLC.

Each of us grabbed a wheelchair from the lab, loaded a walker or other supplies on top, and we headed back westward like a wagon train. Laura took the lead, as she knew the best way to avoid environmental barriers. She’d just given a lecture to the PT1s on that topic in a course on functional mobility. During the lecture, she assigned the students various impairments and tasks to complete with those impairments. One of these was to propel a wheelchair from Wittson Hall at 42nd Street to 40th Street while breathing through a straw (to simulate poor cardiopulmonary function). This experiment piqued my interest.

When we arrived at the Sorrell building, we split up. Laura and I handed our walkers to the others, who were going inside to take the elevator, and the two of us sat down in our chairs, put our feet up on the foot pedals and made for the ramp. We just wanted to see how easy or difficult it would be to take the alternate route, and I was grateful I didn’t have to breathe through a straw for this one. The first 30 seconds were fun! Then we realized how much work it would take to make it all the way down to the front of the building without crashing or ending up in the street.

The temptation to go fast was squelched as soon as I burned my hand with the wheel rim when I tried to slow down. Laura used her foot a couple of times to control her speed and avoid the hand friction. We both agreed that gloves would be helpful, albeit uncomfortable on a hot day. Halfway down, I got cocky and bumped into the railing when I took a corner too fast. I had to back up to make the turn. At the bottom of the hill, the decline into the street ahead looked scary, and I hoped I wouldn’t lose control and end up in front of a car, but we both eventually made it all the way to the door.

I was surprised at how narrow that door felt; we barely seemed to squeeze through. By the time we made it to the Clinical Skills Lab, my arms were aching. It wasn’t the exercise I’d had in mind when I volunteered. It was a full workout, and it gave me a new respect for those who aren’t able to put a foot down to stop and who can’t park their chair and walk away when their arms get tired.

Thanks, ladies, for the opportunity to enjoy a stroll away from my desk, but even more for the life lesson.

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