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Accommodations at School for Wheelchair Users: One Student’s Experiences
What is it like to be a student who uses a wheelchair? Schools are required to provide accommodations so students with disabilities can participate in and access the educational environment. When it comes to receiving assistance and accommodations at school, I am a fan of the phrase “less is more.” I have learned a lot from having to think about obstacles and come up with creative solutions. The process of encountering barriers and navigating around them or resolving them is something I expect will be part of my life as an adult, so I think school is a good place to learn these skills.
Managing School Supplies
Ever since I was little, my school day has started off with the challenge of carrying my school supplies to school. Not everything fits in a wheelchair, and I need my arms to push. When I was little, the backpack was bigger than I was, so my mom brought some things to the classroom early, such as extra clothing and supplies for the restroom. The teacher made sure there was a special place to keep my things.
Now that I am older, strapping a large backpack onto the front of my chair using my seatbelt to hold it works for carrying bulky items, and a sling under my seat between my wheels and a smaller backpack behind me usually work when I have many things to carry. I also have an extra set of school textbooks to keep at home.
All through elementary and middle school, I traveled to school on a school bus with a wheelchair lift. When I was in the bus, the bus driver would attach straps to my chair and lock them to the floor of the bus.
The bus was very hot, and when I had a winter coat on, the ride was very uncomfortable. Because of the straps, I couldn't get my coat off. These are issues parents need to watch for because I was too young to understand how to complain. Also, sometimes the bus lift would not work, and the bus would be late because it broke down.
Field trips were sometimes a challenge when it came to transportation. If a lift bus was not requested, a teacher from the school had permission to drive me to the location. To avoid the awkward situation of being the only student in the car, I was always allowed to invite a few friends along for the ride as well. When the school used large charter buses, I just walked on my hands up the bus steps and sat in a regular bus seat.
As a high school student, I have an arrangement where I get a ride to school. Soon I'll be driving on my own.
Navigating the Classroom
In preschool, kindergarten, and first grade, I left my wheelchair in the hallway and walked around the classroom on my hands. I was able to sit in a regular desk with a cushion underneath. We spent most of our instructional time sitting in a circle on the floor. My classmates could be pretty active, but I quickly learned self-protection by scampering under a nearby table when things got too wild. I never once got trampled.
As I got older, I used my wheelchair more and more. Now I use it in basically every setting at school.
When I was very young, I had a physical therapist to help me develop basic mobility skills, but after a while, that service wasn't needed except for monitoring in case of some unexpected physical obstacle. Each year, the physical therapist makes sure that whatever desk I have is the appropriate height for my wheelchair and that I have reasonable space to enter and exit the classroom.
I had an aide assigned to me in elementary school. She helped me when I asked for help. The main issues were getting my hands washed and then needing to get back to the desk (without walking on my hands and getting them dirty again), carrying items such as library books or a school cafeteria tray, and assistance in the restroom. In middle school, I didn't have an aide anymore because I could manage all of these things on my own.
In high school, I have a case manager, and I check in with her from time to time about any issues that arise that we didn't predict at the beginning of the school year.
Navigating the School Building
In middle school and high school, I had a locker space that I could reach and that was near my main classrooms. I had an orientation before school started to figure out how to get from one class to another. I have an elevator key to go from one floor to another. I leave class a few minutes early and have a few minutes' grace period to arrive at my next class.
Emergency and Safety
If I am on the second floor, I can't use the elevator for evacuation, so I am supposed to go to a particular classroom, and a flag is hung from that classroom window for the firemen to be alerted that I am there. I think that is a ridiculous plan, especially when I can get downstairs on my hands (and honestly I probably will do that if I have to in a real situation). The school personnel are concerned that I would be trampled on the stairs. I'd rather risk being trampled than burned, however.
Initially, an aide assisted me in the restroom. Other school staff were also trained to assist me, including the school vice principal. That way, if someone was out sick, there was a back-up system.
Now I use the facilities independently. A plan for use of the restroom is agreed on, and restrooms that I can use are located before school starts each year. I have a system worked out with teachers. We agree on a signal so I can leave class as needed. I carry bathroom supplies in my backpack.
Gym and Recess
Gym class and recess have always been favorite classes of mine. When I was in kindergarten, I had some canvas-type pants and gloves I used on the playground because it didn't matter how dirty they got when I crawled around outside. When we were playing games that involved running and tagging, certain areas were zoned off for me so I didn't get trampled. For example, if we played hockey and the puck came into my zone, I could hit it back out, but other kids weren't allowed to come into that zone. I used a small scooter board to sit on and push myself around on the gym floor for a lot of the activities.
When I got older, I started bringing my basketball chair to gym class. I did most activities using the basketball chair on the gym floor. In all my years of some pretty daredevil stunts in recess and gym class, I never got really hurt, but of course, I had the normal amount of scrapes and bruises just like any other kid.
Navigating the Social Scene
Accommodations can sometimes turn into socialization opportunities. In kindergarten, the entrance to the playground was a steep, bumpy hill. Some of my classmates and I were given the mission by a very clever teacher to find an alternate route. What we found was not only a lot easier but also air conditioned. In elementary school, that was enough to advance my social standing considerably.
Friendships and connections become more complex in junior high school and high school. Joining activities is really helpful in making friends. I have been a coxswain on my high school crew team. I write for the school newspaper, and I joined the school track team.
One of the things that I benefited a great deal from at a very young age was when the school counselor came into the classroom and did large group class activities about how to respond to bullies or about accepting differences. I never really experienced issues at school, but she gave me tools to cope with certain situations that do come up in various environments. I still apply these tools today. I am fortunate that I had a great support system of friends in school who were always supportive.
We have IEP meetings yearly, and I participate. In these meetings, various issues are brought up from the perspectives of different people such as teachers, my mother, my case manager, and me. For example, in middle school, I raised the issue about a bump at the end of the ramp from a trailer classroom. I was having trouble going down the ramp, holding on to all my stuff, and not falling when I hit the bump. In the IEP meeting, some goals are written that have to do with self-advocacy.
School can be a challenging place for a student who uses a wheelchair. There are all kinds of unexpected barriers such as new round cafeteria tables that suddenly appear in the lunch room with connected benches that won't allow a wheelchair in between. It's important to use these challenges as learning experiences in becoming an independent adult.
Image credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
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