Posted: November 12, 2002
MIDDLEBURY, VT - Entering buildings, walking up hills, climbing steps, opening doors in a wheelchair. Students in a Middlebury College biology class are asking faculty, staff and fellow students to do more than just imagine themselves in this situation. The class organized a "Wheelchair for a Day" program that will allow members of the College community to sign up for a wheelchair and experience the Middlebury campus from the perspective of a wheelchair user. Declaring Nov. 18-22 "Accessibility Awareness Week," the students planned "Wheelchair for a Day" to take place during the final three days of the week. The students also have scheduled several other activities, including a panel of speakers and a concluding discussion, that they hope will add to an increased awareness of accessibility issues on campus.
According to Middlebury College Professor of Biology David Parfitt, who teaches the course, the students were inspired to organize "Wheelchair for a Day" by what they have learned in the class, "Neural Disorders: Individuals, Families and Society. " One element of the course is a service-learning project, which calls for the students to work with members of the community who are stricken with conditions such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, and clinical depression. Many of these individuals are wheelchair users. The course work requires students to document the impact of the diseases upon the individuals, their families and society.
Christopher Richards, a Middlebury College junior and a member of the class said, "Our work with community members led us to apply their struggles to our own College community. We talked with the College's Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) office, as well as with disabled students about their difficulties here at Middlebury. These discussions led to our plans for "Accessibility Awareness Week."
"A truly diverse community includes those with disabilities. The College handbook supports the inclusion of the disabled regarding employment and admissions but accessibility to College buildings needs improvement," added Richards.
Sarah Le Feber, a Middlebury College senior, met with Parfitt's class to discuss her experiences navigating the Middlebury campus as a wheelchair user.
Richards said, "We were concerned with how a full-time wheelchair user might react to our 'Wheelchair for a Day' program, but Sarah loved the idea."
"It's great that people want to learn about accessibility. The 'Wheelchair for a Day' program is going to be a real eye-opener for people on campus. It's important to raise awareness about what we have to go through on a daily basis. I'm looking forward to their reactions," said Le Feber.
Parfitt said, "The students conceived of this idea and organized the events. It's exciting when the enthusiasm about what they're learning inspires them to go beyond the classroom. It's also a testament to the value of service-learning as a component of an academic course."
On Wednesday, Nov. 20, the first day of the "Wheelchair for a Day" campaign, the 16 biology students, Parfitt, and several other faculty members will occupy approximately 20 wheelchairs the students have obtained for the event. For the remaining two days of the campaign, the wheelchairs will be available to staff, and other faculty and students through the five commons or residential life offices on campus. Those who are interested may sign up for specific time slots, and pick up and drop off the wheelchairs at these offices.
All participants in "Wheelchair for a Day" will receive a free T-shirt, which was designed by the students, with the image of a person in a wheelchair at the base of the hill leading up to Middlebury College's Mead Chapel. Beneath the image will be the students' slogan for the wheelchair campaign: "Midd Accessibility: It's an Uphill Battle." At one of the dining halls on campus, event organizers also plan to distribute stickers featuring the international accessibility wheelchair symbol and the words "Accessibility Awareness Week '02: It's an Uphill Battle."
As part of "Accessibility Awareness Week," members of the College community may also attend a Nov. 18 panel discussion led by Parfitt that includes Le Feber and several of the community members who worked with Parfitt's class.
All "Wheelchair for a Day" participants will be encouraged to attend the final event of the week on the evening of Nov. 22-an educational forum where participants will discuss their experiences as wheelchair users.
"Accessibility Awareness Week" is sponsored by several Middlebury College organizations: the commons system, ADA office, biology department, and neuroscience program.
For more information, contact event organizer Christopher Richards at 802-443-4555.