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Rising to the Wheelchair Challenge

This winter at BFS, Teacher and Dean Laurice Hwang’s 5th grade students rose to the occasion to rally around and learn from a differently abled student.

by Jeffrey Stanley

A problem for someone in a wheelchair is carrying things.   If they are carrying things and have them on your lap, you also have to grab the wheels…Wheel Works is a desk you can clip on to any wheelchair.

The Handrone is an electronic hovering hand that has a mini helicopter-like rotor. This mechanism is helpful to be able to see things that are very high; for example, a library book on the top shelf.

The idea for the project sort of came up unexpectedly,” said Middle School Science Teacher and 5th and 6th Grade Dean Laurice Hwang.  “When Kai first came back to school, I was with him a lot because I’m a dean, so I’d often be in charge of making sure he was okay.”  Kai had taken time off from school for an illness and returned in a wheelchair, resulting in a lot of curious and inquisitive classmates.  “While hanging out with him, I noticed that there were some basic things that were super inconvenient for him, like getting a drink of water, getting lunch in the cafeteria, trying to press the elevator button on certain floors,” continued Laurice.  And thus the seeds for the Wheelchair Design Challenge were planted.”One day I was with him in Middle School Head Barry Davis‘ office while the rest of the Middle School was going to Quaker Meeting at Schermerhorn.  I had been trying to think of something to keep him engaged for 45 minutes.”  She decided to seek out movies that positively depicted differently abled people, and which would be appealing to kids, and settled on Darius Goes West, a documentary that had been screened at a PAT Diversity Committee event several years ago.  “It’s about a boy named Darius Weems, who has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, who goes across the country with a group of friends from Georgia to California to try to get his wheelchair customized on MTV’s Pimp My Ride.”

She and Kai watched the film together.  “There’s a part in the movie where Darius starts rapping about what features he’d like his wheelchair to have, and Kai turned to me and said, ‘I wish my wheelchair had a cupholder.’ I started thinking about how all those inconveniences Kai faced had solutions, and that’s where the project really started.”

The project was also a case of good timing, as Laurice had already been pondering the uses of science and technology to improve quality of life as a discussion topic in her science classes.  “I was also primed for this because I’ve been thinking about ways to get more STEAM in my science class, and this seemed like a good opportunity.” STEAM, a well-known acronym to 21st century school teachers, stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math.  “I’ve been looking for opportunities for students to do more hands-on problem solving,” she elaborated.

The end result was a 3-week module in her 5th grade science classes in which students brainstormed and designed improved wheelchair concepts. Some students walked the building to get ideas. One class was also paid a visit by an architecture professor from SUNY Buffalo who introduced the Americans With Disabilities Act and the need to design buildings with wheelchair access. In the end, students wrote about and formally presented their ideas. Their conclusions were in turn made into a slideshow presentation that Laurice shared with other Middle School faculty. Kai himself reviewed and judged his classmates’ design suggestions.

“It was a special moment that I seized, but the students seemed to really enjoy the project and get a lot out of it.” She also praised Kai for being so open and willing to participate as the focus of the project.  “His friendships made them really care about the project in a way that surprised me,” said Laurice.   It also fit well within this year’s 5th grade service learning curriculum.  “We visit a nursing home, and a lot of the residents are in wheelchairs.” Also, some students’ grandparents are confined to wheelchairs.  “I think this project increased students’ empathy.”

The curricular addition also crossed over into the 5th grade Humanities class where students were reading the award-winning children’s books El Deafo and Wonder, both of which deal with ability and difference.  Middle School Humanities Teacher Erin Mansur and BFS Registrar Valarie Alstoncame in as guest speakers to talk about their own experiences being hearing impaired at BFS and in the community at large.  “A mini-unit about differently abled people just emerged organically from everything that was going on,” reflected Laurice.

This year has also seen the launch of additional Affinity Groups and Identity Explorations in the Middle School, further coinciding with the timing of the Wheelchair Project.  “The Identity Explorations (IE) groups,” explained Laurice, “focus on learning about one social identifier and how it affects society, its historical context, and students’ personal connections.”

All of this jibes well with BFS’ overall mission statement.  “Community is one of the Quaker values that we try to emphasize in the Middle School. The warmth and caring that the kids have shown towards Kai in wanting him to feel included and to help him when he needs help shows how strong the sense of community is here.”  She added modestly, “I can’t really take responsibility for that though.”

POSTSCRIPT: Kai returned to school after spring break without having to use a wheelchair. He continues in his recovery and we wish him all the best.