KU occupational therapy students experience what it's like to be in a wheelchair

September 27, 2013

By Greg Peters

Occupational therapy students try to maneuver out of a door on the KU Medical Center campus

The tables are turned on occupational therapy students at the University of Kansas Medical Center when they give up their running shoes and sandals for seats in wheelchairs and a chance to see what life is like for their patients with physical disabilities.

The exercise is part of clinical assistant professor Lauren Foster's Analysis and Adaptation of Occupations class, which lets first-year occupational therapy students experience life as a person who uses a wheelchair as their primary means for getting around. Each of the 36 class members spends an eight-hour shift in the chairs navigating the hallways, classrooms and restrooms of KU Medical Center and beyond.

"The most surprising part of the whole experience is that nearly every task seemed to take longer and was harder than usual," says Brandon Goeckel. "Because of this, I had to manage my whole schedule differently, which was something I was not prepared for."

The Department of Occupational Therapy Education has been using the wheelchair experience in its curriculum for years. Foster says the students learn to empathize with the aches, pains, bumps and bruises that their patients must cope with on a daily basis.

"We've tweaked the assignment throughout the years, but we feel that it's important that students experience what it's like to have a physical disability," she says. "Specifically, we want students to think about how the contexts and environments in which we live are not accessible for everyone."

Jennifer Paulsen says she'll carry some lessons from the experience for the rest of her career. "When I first began the project, I was given a chair with a larger frame than was suitable for my body type. Within the first 30 minutes I developed uncomfortable bruises and burns on my arms from the repetitive rubbing against the oversized chair. Those first few minutes solidified this lesson for life."

Students sign up for the exercise in groups of four, using chairs that are shared between KU's physical therapy and occupational therapy departments. They are tasked with propelling themselves not only around the KU Medical Center campus but also venturing out into the community to get a genuine taste of life in a wheelchair before they turn in their observations.

"We encourage students to leave the campus or their home, go out to lunch, dinner, to a movie, or mall," Foster says. "This exercise focuses on the experience of using a chair for mobility including propelling and navigating barriers."

Goeckel says one of the most difficult things about the day was learning how to get in and out of the restrooms, while Paulsen adds that tilted sidewalks and curbs meant to be wheelchair accessible can be dangerous even upending a chair.

"We attempted to make the short trip to Burger King for breakfast and quickly realized how difficult it would be," says Abbey Holtz. "One curb cut in particular was extremely challenging, and I went flying backwards into the street. I almost ended up in the lap of a fellow classmate, who happened to be right behind me. Luckily I caught myself."

Students in the class say they gain respect for their patients. The exercise leaves them with bruised arms from armrests that are constantly rubbing, sore shoulders rolling the heavy chairs around all day and aching backs from sitting so long.

"I noticed that everything on the physical aspect became more difficult, no matter how small it seemed," Goeckel says. "This made me realize how frustrating even the small things can be for people with disabilities. Also, I found it difficult to ask for help for certain things and that was only in an eight-hour span. This experience has allowed me to understand that things are harder and come with different struggles, and I need to acknowledge that when approaching my future patients."

Beyond the physical demands of navigating through life in a wheelchair, the students learn first-hand the personal and emotional stigmas society often places on individuals in wheelchairs.

"People should be treated with respect and dignity regardless of their ability or status," says Joel Strain, a class member who has been using a wheelchair since breaking his back in a car wreck nine years ago. "This doesn't mean that you pretend not to see a disability. I prefer not to be patronized by hearing things like, 'You're just like everyone else' or, 'You're a regular person too,' or, 'You sure are handi-capable.'"

"It's actually comical when people say such things," he adds. "There are some pretty glaring differences between me and the average person - mainly, my legs don't work, and I'm rolling around in a chair. Don't try and ignore it and don't try to make a big deal about it. It is what it is."

As the day wound to a close, Strain and three of his classmates found time to relax as they studied together around a table in the School of Nursing atrium. Strain gave his classmates a chance to wheel around in his titanium wheelchair, which is significantly lighter and does not have armrests to get in the user's way.

"Bumps and bruises are probably inevitable when you're in an oversized chair that isn't customized to fit you," Strain says. "The chairs they have for this assignment are 'boats' that are not ideal for daily use. They are getting some great experience by being thrown into a new environment with this lower-end equipment."  

However frustrating the experience might have been for the students, it wasn't without its enjoyable moments.

"The most interesting part of the day was at the end when Joel was showing me the proper way of doing a wheelie," Goeckel says. "It showed the lighter side and was really a lot of fun."

You can see more photos of the occupational therapy students' wheelchair education training program on the School of Health Professions Facebook page.

Last modified: Nov 12, 2013