It is not your legs that make you important: Kids experience what life is like in a wheelchair

Children spend several hours in a wheelchair, going through a library and out to lunch, to understand and be aware of the challenges disabled people experience every day.



Life in a wheelchair is not something to which able-bodied children are often exposed. Now, thanks to a program created by a physical therapist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, more than 100 children have experienced what it would be like if they had to use one every day.

“I wanted to create a simple program that could have an impact on able-bodied kids before their prejudices are formed so they could experience what it is like to have a disability, meet people who do have disabilities and understand that just because someone is in a wheelchair doesn’t make them any different from anyone else,” said Cathy Carver, a wheelchair clinic specialist at UAB’s Spain Rehabilitation Center.  

Carver started Come Roll With Me two years ago after asking a friend who homeschools her children whether her kids ever encounter children with disabilities. When her friend told her they do not, she planned an outing.

roll onPhysical therapist Cathy Carver shows Lauren and Johnathan Bailey how to use the wheelchairs at the Hoover Library. “I borrowed a few wheelchairs from Mobility Central, and my kids and another family met at the Vestavia Library. We did activities from a wheelchair that they were used to doing while standing,” Carver explained. “We happened to see one of my patients who uses a wheelchair in the library that day and got to talk with her and see her van. Then we went out to lunch, with the kids still in the wheelchairs. That full experience seemed to have a very big impact on that family, so here we are two years later with Come Roll With Me.”

Carver has used this program with children ages 3 to 18 years old, but she prefers to start with the younger children.

“I wanted to start with kids as young as 4 or 5 because they are forming their opinions about what they think about people and other kids and adults,” Carver said. “The goal is to develop an appreciation and respect so, when they see someone who is using a wheelchair, they now go, ‘wow, that’s cool.’ I want them to come away with an increased awareness and respect for what people do every day when they are in a wheelchair. We say, ‘friends not fear.’”

For each group that goes through the Come Roll With Me program, Carver takes the parents and the children to the Hoover Library, where the kids learn to use the wheelchairs. The kids face the challenges others in wheelchairs face every day. They see what it would be like to not be able to reach a book on the top shelf because they cannot stand up or get out of their chair. They learn how heavy bathroom doors can be and the challenge of opening the door and maneuvering a wheelchair to get inside at the same time. They also try to use the water fountain from the wheelchair and check out books.

“It was hard,” said a 7-year-old boy who participated in the program earlier this month. “I had to ask my mom for help a lot.”

“The [bathroom] door was really heavy, and I couldn’t hold it open and move the wheelchair at the same time, so I couldn’t get inside,” said a 5-year-old girl. 

“Most of the world is not adapted to someone who is in a seated position. They notice the environment is not always set up for people on wheels. I hope the impact has been more of an awareness or respect. It is meant to open up eyes and be aware.”

“I think they notice that things take longer, things are heavier, things are higher,” Carver said. “Most of the world is not adapted to someone who is in a seated position. They notice the environment is not always set up for people on wheels. I hope the impact has been more of an awareness or respect. It is meant to open up eyes and be aware.”

For each outing, a person who uses a wheelchair meets the kids at the library to talk to them about their lives and the challenges they face. They also answer the kids’ questions, such as why are you in a wheelchair, how do you a drive a car, and how do you put on your pants?

W.D. Foster, a retired Birmingham police officer and an army veteran, often joins the group. Foster became paralyzed in November of 2007 when he was taking a physical fitness test to prepare for another deployment.

“I was doing sit-ups as fast as I could when I came down on a rock,” Foster said. “The rock punctured my spine, and hours later, I was paralyzed from the waist down.”

Foster talked to the children and their parents about how his injury changed his life, but also about how they should treat other children in wheelchairs.

“If you meet another child in a wheelchair, try to befriend them,” Foster said. “People with disabilities don’t want all of their friends to be other people with disabilities. They want to be treated just like everyone else.”

He encouraged the parents to include children in wheelchairs when they have birthday parties or playdates, and to make small concessions to ensure they are comfortable.

“You can do little things like measuring spaces in your home, such as the bathroom, to make sure it is large enough to fit the chair, or offering the master bathroom as an option so the parents of the child know he or she will be OK. Things like that will go a long way for both the child and the parents.”

He also showed them his handicapped-equipped minivan, including how he gets in and out with a ramp and how he drives using the hand controls for the gas and brakes.

“It’s a superman car!” said a 4-year-old participant.

As for the parents, Carver says they get as much out of the program as their kids.

“When they have to load the chairs in their cars and then unload them for their kids, and the parents realize how much work it is and the planning that goes into every outing, it is very eye-opening,” Carver said.

“I want them to learn to look and be aware, but not to stare, and to understand and be conscious if someone needs help,” said Alicia Bailey, a parent of two children who participated.

Awareness is a key part of the lesson. During each lunch, Carver asks the kids if they would like to be stared at just because they are in a wheelchair.

“I don’t want anyone to stare at me! I do not like that!” said a 7-year-old boy.

“Why would they stare? It’s just a chair,” said a 5-year-old girl.

Carver hopes the program will be replicated by therapists across the country. She also hopes to expand it to local schools. Until then, she will continue to try to teach children that we are all the same, despite a disability.

“Even if you couldn’t walk, there is nothing wrong with your brain, your heart,” Carver said. “You’re a real person too; you’re just sitting on wheels. It’s not your legs that make you important. What makes you important is who you are.”