According to the U.S. Census data, almost 20% of the population has some sort of disability, about 10% have a visible physical disability and over 3 million Americans use a wheelchair full time. So why is it so rare to see someone in a wheelchair on a university campus?
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 19% of undergraduates in 2015 to 2016 reported having a disability. The Bureau of Labor Statistics added that people with a disability are less likely to have completed a bachelor’s degree than people without a disability.
If these facts are true, then students with a physical disability who choose to finish their studies have just as much motivation as any other students, if not more. Because to top it off, many students with a disability juggle many other obstacles in their daily lives.
In addition to the dreadful hospital checkups, medicine prescriptions and therapy sessions, there are many stumbling blocks along the way that come with the use of a wheelchair. Some of the hurdles I introduce will help you understand the next friend you meet with a physical disability.
1. Going out with friends and family
Going out is a fairly simple activity for most people. Whether you’re the passenger or driver, you just hop in the car and arrive at your destination. For many people in a wheelchair, things are much harder. Even if you can get out of the wheelchair, some assistance might be needed to get in the car. Some wheelchair users need a ramp or lift that can guarantee safe passage into the car.
What if a person with a physical disability wants to go out with friends but doesn’t have a car or family nearby that can help them? Do they just call a friend to give them a ride? It’s not that easy. They have to make sure that the car can accommodate their wheelchair, walker or cane.
2. Holding pots and bowls
You’ve just made a bowl of your favorite chicken ramen in your dorm room. You see the bubbles boiling from the chicken broth, and the aromatic steam is fogging up your glasses. Sitting in your wheelchair, you pour most of the ramen into a bowl, spilling a little bit here and there. You look around, but none of your roommates are there to help. So with the bowl in your hands, you depend on your legs to pull you and your wheelchair to your desk, where you can finally savor your lunch.
But as you approach the desk, there’s a slight bump and some of the piping hot broth ends up on your lap. It’s burning hot and you quickly grab your thighs in pain. All in slow motion, your lunch jumps into the sky and the bowl crashes to the floor. But there’s no time to waste, you rush to the bathroom to clean yourself up before your next class. After you’ve washed up, you have to pick up all the noodles and clean up all the broth. Not only have you skipped breakfast, but now lunch too.
3. Wheeling in the rain
Why would wheeling in the rain be a problem? All you need is an umbrella or raincoat and everything’s fine, right? No, there is a problem. If the wheels are coated with titanium or steel, water will just make the wheels harder to push, and therefore, almost impossible to move.
4. Reaching for things high up
After class ends at 11 a.m., your professor assigns a chapter from a new book to read on your own time with a book report due by the next class. You search for the book on the school library page and find that the book is on the fifth shelf in row B3. For most students, it’s fairly easy to find. But if you’re someone in a wheelchair, you might need to call a friend to help reach the book. Apparently, your friend is on the other side of campus, so you end up waiting a long time.
You have another class at noon, and this is usually your lunch break, so it’s time to be resourceful. Luckily, there’s a café next to the library. So you rush over, order a club sandwich, chow it down with a glass of water and meet your friend in the library at 11:35 a.m.
5. Getting to class
What many people fail to recognize is how difficult it is to maneuver a wheelchair. You see, a wheelchair is like a very short seesaw. With half of your body on one side and your legs hanging on the other side, there’s no need to worry. Even with a backpack hanging in the back, the balance may be uneven, but wheeling is no problem.
But suppose you have to go up a steep hill to reach your destination. When wheeling forward, all your weight tips back and you feel the front wheels lifting. It’s a relief the anti-tippers are there to catch you because if they broke, you would fall back.
6. Constantly getting cuts and bruises
There are many unexpected challenges that those without a disability never considered, but I assume the minor accidents from using a wheelchair are the most obvious. Many people encounter countless cuts and bruises due to the size of their wheelchair. In other words, with the slightest wrong turn or speedy push, a wheelchair can hit the corner of a doorway and peel some skin, break a nail or punch a knuckle. For someone in a wheelchair, these accidents are just a part of their everyday life.
People with disabilities face barriers every day and have to fight for what they want. If they let hard times and negative remarks stop them from reaching their goals, the percentage of undergraduates with a disability would be zero. The fact that it isn’t zero should be proof that if we believe in ourselves, anything can be fulfilled.