Tatiana Mayen

Tatiana Mayen

Nanaimo high-school students see life from a wheelchair

NANAIMO – Mobility awareness exercise teaches Nanaimo students what its like to attend school in a wheelchair.

When your school isn’t designed for a wheelchair it can be tough getting to classes or even the restroom.

Katie Schilling, a Grade 11 student who has attended Nanaimo District Secondary School since 2010, has Friedreich’s ataxia, a rare disease causing nervous system damage, which forces her to rely heavily on a motorized wheelchair and students rushing to class crowd corridors and occasionally voice their impatience Schilling can’t keep pace.

“They’re really impatient,” Schilling said. “They cut in front of me a lot and when they stop in front of me I kind of run into them and then I would get in trouble.”

Schilling decided it was time other students got a sense of what it’s like to spend a day in a wheelchair, so she, Kate Gustafson, school counsellor, and Nicole Sugyama, occupational therapist, staged a Mobility Awareness Day Friday, with six wheelchairs provided by Advance Mobility Products. Participating students were not allowed to get out of the chairs unless there was a school emergency.

Using a wheelchair means planning ahead.

There are only two wheelchair ramps leading into the school. Getting to the second floor means crossing an outdoor quadrangle, in all weather, to reach the school’s single elevator, after a trip to the main office to get the elevator key.

Reaching items on the top shelf of a locker becomes practically impossible from wheelchair level. Even closing or opening a locker door takes careful manoeuvring.

With the only wheelchair-accessible bathroom on the school’s north end answering nature’s call requires a daunting journey if you’re in a class upstairs on the opposite side of the building.

Participants kept notes on what getting around was like, how the world looks from wheelchair level and other students’ reactions, which were shared with the student council and staff who will be tasked with finding ways to bring mobility awareness throughout the school.

Lucas Merlet, a Grade 10 participant, experienced frustration with the lack of wheelchair ramps, difficult washroom and classroom accessibility, uneven outdoor surfaces that must be crossed to get upstairs and the need to retrieve a key from the front office for the elevator.

“The best way I could describe it is, like, you’re sitting in an airplane and you’re anxious to get out when you land so you can stretch your legs and stuff, but people like Katie don’t have that option,” Merlet said.