There is a saying, “Do not judge a man until you walk a mile in his shoes.” I took this literally when I wanted to see what it was like to be a paraplegic. So I got myself a wheelchair and pair of gloves and spent four days “rolling” a mile in their shoes. More than 6 million people in the United States live with paralysis. That’s the combined populations of Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
NextStep Fitness, which is based in California, promotes the Wheelchair for a Day Challenge to raise awareness of the difficulties people with disabilities face and to raise money “to provide the opportunity for health and recovery through affordable and progressive community fitness, health, and wellness facilities,” according to its website.
I decided to take the challenge, and extend it to four days to go through my entire school schedule.
There were many challenges I faced over that period. Some of these challenges are ones that an able-bodied person may never think about – things ranging from getting through a doorway to carrying an instrument. Even using the bathroom proved to be a difficult task. By New York State law, there has to be a minimum of one handicap-accessible bathroom in all public buildings, and at times I may have been on the other side of the building or even on a different floor from that bathroom. I was then forced to get out of the chair or else I couldn’t fit in the stall. I also had a difficult time rolling into the school building through the snow. Not to mention when I got inside, the wheels were wet on the already slippery floor, making it almost impossible to move. One of my biggest problems was having to maneuver through tight classrooms and spaces. I wondered: Were these problems affecting me so much because I wasn’t used to being in a chair and my teachers didn’t alter their plans because I wasn’t really paralyzed?
To find out if these were problems faced by people who use a wheelchair in their daily life, I talked to Ryan Nurmi.
Ryan is 16 years old and is a junior at Frontier High School in Hamburg. In early February 2011, Ryan was being pulled on a sled by a snowmobile when he was thrown off and hit a tree. He was paralyzed from the waist down. He went through months of recovery while the community held several fundraisers for him.
Ryan says that it was hard to adapt to being in a wheelchair.
At school, he is given extra time between classes to get through the crowded hallways. If he can leave a class early, then he can have the hallway to himself. He also participates in gym class, but if they’re doing things he is unable to do, he works out in the weight room. Ryan said he has gotten better at carrying his belongings. He balances them on his lap. He also uses the school’s elevator.
I found all of these things very difficult in my experience, but Ryan has helped show me that when you are permanently in a wheelchair, it gets easier as you are forced to adapt.
Through rehabilitation, children, teens and adults have been helped and sometimes have even been able to overcome their disabilities. This rehabilitation gives them hope and encouragement as they work toward their goals.
NextStep strives to help people with disabilities. It was started by Janne Kouri. A healthy and active newlywed, Kouri lived in California and was on the beach competing in a volleyball tournament. Between games, he decided to take a swim in the ocean. As he dove into the water he hit his head on a sandbar. From that moment, he became a quadriplegic (paralyzed from the neck down,) and was told he would never walk again. With a lot of hard work, determination and the help of rehabilitation, he is now able to walk on his own. However, this triumph was not without struggle. Kouri realized early in his rehabilitation process that there were no rehab centers in California that met his needs. So he and his wife moved to Louisville, Ky., for treatment. After several months, his insurance money had run out and he had to return to California.
Through this experience, Kouri was inspired to create the nonprofit rehab center NextStep Fitness in Lawndale, Calif. Since its start, NextStep has helped many people. The equipment used in NextStep is very advanced, and the center tries to keep up with all the latest innovations. However, it relies solely on donations, which is why the Wheelchair for a Day program began.
I have realized that the thing people with disabilities want most is to be treated like everyone else. Though at times they need help, or are unable to do certain things, the reality is, who doesn’t? Some people can’t tie their shoes or need help with algebra, and those with paralysis are unable to use their legs. They don’t want pity, they want support and encouragement as they follow their hopes and dreams.
“I take all the regular classes, and three AP courses,” says Ryan, showing that he hasn’t let this disability hold him back.
Many people with disabilities have done amazing things. From Steven Hawking, who has received many intellectual awards and has defied the odds by living with ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a motor neuron disease,) to Oscar Pistorius, also known as Blade Runner, who competed in the track and field events of the 2012 London Olympic Games, running on two prosthetic legs. Though he did not win any medals, he has opened the door for other athletes with disabilities.
I realized that being in a wheelchair can be difficult and frustrating at times, but I knew that at the end of the week I would be able to walk out of the chair. Disabled people don’t have that option, but instead of giving pity, we should be advocates. If I’ve gotten one thing out of this experience, it is a profound respect and love for other people who are different than me and the understanding that you must live life to the fullest no matter what is thrown at you.
To donate to NextStep through my Wheelchair for a Day Challenge, visit www.crowdrise.com/emmaretzlaff. One-hundred percent of your donation will go to helping NextStep achieve its goals. Don’t have money to give? Then raise awareness by taking the Wheelchair for a Day Challenge free of charge. For more information, call NextStep at (310) 546-5666 or go to www.nextstepfitness.org.
Emma Retzlaff is a freshman at Alden High School.