Defining Moment Making a Wheel Difference A program plays a key "roll" in altering perceptions. By Cathy Carver, PT | February 2020 Listen to 'Defining Moment' Seven years into my career as a physical therapist (PT), I moved back to my native Mississippi from Birmingham, Alabama, where I'd been working in inpatient neurorehabilitation at the University of Alabama at Birmingham's (UAB) Spain Rehabilitation Center. At Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson, I practiced in the inpatient rehab physical therapy department. I quickly became fascinated with what was happening at the Seating and Wheeled Mobility (SWM) Clinic located on my floor. It was like a box of chocolates! Every hour of the day, a sweet variety of things were going on. Seeing people with different levels of ability from different backgrounds work with the clinic's expert and caring staff toward a common goal made an impact. Each person with a disability was being connected with the mobility equipment and technology that would best enable that individual to live life to its fullest. Spending time with Allison Fracchia, PT, who worked in the SWM clinic, was valuable! She was patient with my many questions and allowed me a lot of time observing her. She let me assess people's posture and take measurements. I tagged along on her in-services and trainings. Allison's mentorship confirmed what I'd already suspected: I wanted to work in this area of physical therapy. There were so many ways to help people be more independent with their wheelchair! It required creative problem-solving, because each person's case and goals were different. Before I knew it, SWM was in my blood. After about two years at Methodist I returned to UAB, but this time with the goal of doing SWM work. I found that it was everything I'd hoped it would be. I was thrilled to be in a position to help people who were so capable, determined, and eager to learn. They, in turn, taught me a lot about dealing with the stereotype that they are "wheelchair-bound." I saw what vibrant lives they led given the proper customized equipment. Over the next few years I got married and had two children. My life at home and work was great, but there was one place where my two worlds didn't intersect, and it started to bother me: How could I teach my children all the lessons I was learning from my patients and friends with long-term disabilities? How could I best get them to see and understand that just because people may use a wheelchair, that doesn't make them strange or somehow lesser than anyone else? At the same time that I was having these thoughts, I was realizing that many of my friends were homeschooling their children. Kids who are homeschooled don't always have the same opportunities that public school children do to encounter and learn from kids with special needs who are being mainstreamed. I asked one of my friends if her homeschooled children had any exposure to kids who use wheelchairs. She said no but added that she was open to educating them. Great! But educate them how? The question kept me up at night, until I hit on an idea. I like to say that God spoke to me at that defining moment. I arranged for my friend and her four children to join me and my two kids at a local library. I borrowed a variety of manual wheelchairs from a local supplier — with different tires, backs, and cushions, and various weights, sizes, and functions — and asked the kids to attempt various activities from their seated position. Over the course of three hours, they checked out books, used computers, visited the restroom, used the water fountain, and wheeled themselves to the library's outdoor playground. What I hadn't planned on, but made the experience even better and more meaningful, was that one of my patients from UAB happened to be volunteering at the library that day. She'd been using a wheelchair for about 25 years, since sustaining a gunshot injury. She graciously fielded the children's questions and told them about her life — that she has her own apartment and drives around town in a specially equipped van. She gave the children tips on how and when to offer help to a person who uses a wheelchair — and, just as important, when to remain silent and not assume the person needs help. It was a wonderful afternoon. The kids learned powerful lessons by putting themselves in the position of a person who uses a wheelchair, and by hearing the words and witnessing the independence of such an individual. Word quickly spread, and a disability awareness program that's now known as Come Roll With Me was born. For the first year I took small groups of homeschooled kids out on similar outings. Then I became a community partner of the UAB Occupational Therapy School's "groups and community" class, and things really snowballed. As the name suggests, we're now getting groups of children without disabilities out into a variety of community locations to learn about wheelchair mobility from their own experiences and from people who use wheelchairs in their daily life. Occupational therapy students get a great hands-on education, too. We've visited libraries, the local mall, a hotel, and a Walmart. A friend who uses a wheelchair joins us. His presence not only helps the kids gain respect for the abilities of people with disabilities, but also to learn what questions are appropriate to ask. Afterward, we typically load up the wheelchairs and all go out to eat together, with the kids using wheelchairs at the restaurant. Those experiences bring additional challenges and further increase the children's appreciation of the obstacles people who use wheelchairs must navigate and overcome. Occupational therapy students conduct pre- and post-event interviews with the kids that reveal what they've learned and how their attitudes toward people with disabilities have been altered by the experience. We also ask each child to complete a follow-up project, such as writing an essay about their experience or determining how they'd redesign their bedroom or bathroom to accommodate a wheelchair. We post many of those projects on our Facebook page. Now, three years in and 40 events and 150 kids later, Come Roll With Me is continuing to make a difference in attitudes toward and appreciation of people with disabilities. We've presented the program before local, state, and national groups; we've drawn interest from the Girl Scouts of America; we've seen Come Roll With Me replicated in Mississippi; and an event is being planned in Florida. But we don't want to stop there! We hope the program's simple structure yet powerful impact will strike a chord with therapists, wheelchair suppliers, and parents who'd like to implement it in their community. If you want to know more, please contact me on Facebook @comeroll16 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don't let your sadness or anger about public misperceptions of users of wheelchairs keep you up at night. You soon can be part of informing and changing young minds. Come roll with us! Cathy Carver, PT, a physical therapist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is a certified assistive technology professional and a certified seating and mobility specialist.