Physical Therapy Students Study Challenges Of Wheelchair Use

By: Venae Roan, Managing Editor

This past month OCCC visitors, students and faculty may have been shocked to see a long line of clearly able-bodied students rolling across campus together in wheelchairs.

Introduction to Physical Therapy students were utilizing the mobility devices as a lab activity to experience firsthand how challenging moving around can be for those who are unable to walk.

Peggy Newman, professor of Physical Therapy Assistant Program, said the students in her class realized utilizing wheelchairs and accessing areas around campus including bathroom stalls and sinks, sidewalks, across curbs, entryways, and parking lots is very challenging.

The lab activity is a yearly event and is more impactful than a lecture, Newman said.

“I added a lab activity so they had to experience all these different areas instead of me just showing them and talking about it,” Newman said.

Physical therapists may have to assist their patients to navigate the struggles of day to day life in a wheelchair, so it is important the students gain first hand experience being confined to a wheelchair. 

“Part of being a physical therapy assistant is helping them with stuff that is part of everyday life,” Ali Gillpatrick, physical therapy, said.

“Transferring them from their wheelchair to their bed, or their wheelchair to their car, preparing them for everyday life outside of their home,” she said. “Just trying to teach them how to be more accessible.”

The able-bodied students quickly learned how much strength is needed when using an non-motorized chair. 

“Many of our students are quite fit so strength helps. But even with that strength it’s a different kind of skill they haven’t done.” said Peggy Newman. 

“You use a lot of energy when you’re wheeling a chair.  [Wheeling] uses more energy…so they feel that,” Newman said

The physical therapy students learned about various types of wheelchairs and their different purposes. 

They also learned the importance of planning ahead when working with a disabled patient, Newman said.

In the empathy-based exercise, students were paired up, and they maneuvered the wheelchairs around campus, testing the use of the chairs in different scenarios. 

They practiced getting up and down curbs, and rolling through grass. They also tested handicap accessible doors, bathroom stalls, and water fountains around campus. 

Operating a water fountain was an unexpected challenge for some students.

Students found the type of arm attachment on each chair made a difference in the ease of drinking water from the fountain. If a chair was not outfitted with the specific arms made for sitting at a desk, the students struggled to drink from the fountain without spilling water on themselves.

“Not being in a wheelchair before, I thought it was going to be a lot easier than it was,” Gillpatrick said.

Bathrooms seemed to be where most students struggled. 

Veronica Alvarado, physical therapy, said, “If I had no use of my legs, I wouldn’t be able to transfer myself to the toilet.” 

“You wouldn’t be able to use the sink without getting your hands wet on the counter,” Thai Arias, physical therapy, said 

Even though OCCC bathrooms have handicap stalls, they aren’t always easy to use, students said.

Gillpatrick said that even though every stall had the required amenities, the positioning of the handrails in relation to the actual location of the toilet caused additional struggles. 

“In the bathroom stall, yes they had the handrails,” Gillpatrick said. “They were the correct height, but just the placement of them made it very hard to maneuver.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990. defines the ADA as “one of America’s most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation” aimed at protecting Americans with either a mental or physical disability from discrimination. 

The ADA sets minimum accessibility requirements to any location providing public accommodations to ensure those with disabilities are not discriminated against and can go about daily life like any other Americans.

Executive Director of Facilities Management Chris Snow said OCCC strives to meet ADA guidelines.

“When an OCCC related renovation or new construction occurs, the area is updated/constructed to meet current ADA Guidelines,” Snow said in an email.

“The College will also consider executing any reasonable ADA related accommodations when realized or requested.”

Students said after the activity they were better able to understand the struggles that people who use wheelchairs face daily and the respect they deserve.

Gillpatrick also said she was taken by how difficult daily operation of a wheelchair would be for someone who does not have full control of all of their limbs.

“Think about somebody that can use a wheelchair, but maybe they can only use one arm and one leg, versus having both arms to push,” Gillpatrick said. 

“It’s just so eye opening once you put yourself in the situation.”

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