Is COCC really wheelchair-friendly?

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I think of myself as a healthy person; I work out almost every day and eat the right things. So I assumed going up a hill in a wheelchair would be nothing. That belief and self-assurance were about to be thrown right back in my face.

My wingman for the trip was Britney Peterson, a student at the school who suffers from cerebral palsy. She has a caregiver who goes with her to class and helps her every day. Today, though, she was accompanied by her father Mike, and when he introduced himself to me he said that he was more than grateful to us for doing this and hoped it would have an impact on the community.

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To Barber Library

I was roleplaying a student in a wheelchair attending COCC who had a class up in Grandview. My first task for this project was to go to the library and check out a book I needed for class. When I was first told this, I thought it was simple enough; I mean, I walked to the library every day.

But going there on the wheelchair proved to be more difficult. It soon became clear that even the slight slope of the road leaving the campus center made a world a difference on how the wheelchair handled. I was shocked at how easy it would be to lose control if I wasn’t careful enough.

Usually walking from the campus center to the library takes me no more than two minutes, but on the wheelchair it took me more than five. This proved to be the first of many challenges that laid ahead for me. Once I reached the library and managed to get through the doors, I felt accomplished, but my ego felt bruised.

To the Health Careers Building

The next stop was the Health Careers Center, which to most people is a nothing distance since it’s only across the street. But to me, it wasn’t only across the street, but up a bigger slope that turned into a bumpy road filled with drivers in a hurry to get to class.

From the library doors I took a lung full of air, adjusted the gloves I got for the occasion to protect my hands, and wheeled myself forward.

The first several meters were very easy, but as the pavement began to incline, the forward momentum I had quickly vanished and I found myself huffing and puffing sooner than I expected.

I felt the eyes of the people walking next to me on the street, almost judging me as I pushed myself forward. When I finally made it up the slope, I had broken into a light sweat. Looking back from the top of the slope, the view didn’t look so menacing, but now I knew how hard that insignificant-looking street really was.

Since the Health Careers Building is one of the newest in the school, when I pressed the button the doors opened almost seamlessly. Inside I was greeted by the cool air of the AC system, which I welcomed and while I rolled up to the hallway I tried to control my breathing and my heart. Inside I found out that simple, mundane tasks like drinking water from the fountain or reaching up to press the elevator button were twice as hard for me, in a wheelchair, than to someone who wasn’t.

The knowledge of what people like Britney – who was smiling right beside me – go through every day settled within my mind, making me feel guilty for thinking the way I had been no more than 20 minutes ago.

Finally the elevator doors opened to go up to the third floor where I would make my way to my next destination.

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Up to Pioneer

Upon exiting the Health Center I was faced with one of the most challenging obstacles yet. Going up four different ramps zigzagging up to the entrance to Pioneer hall. In my mind, I picture myself and how easy it would be to just get up and walk up those ramps. I would make it up there in no time, but I had to remind myself that if I did that, it would ruin the whole experiment.

If it hadn’t been for Britney encouraging me to go, I know for a fact I would have stopped and walked the rest of the way. The only thought going through my mind as I slowly rolled up the second and third ramp was “don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop,” I mentally willed my arms to propel me forward even when all I wanted was to stop and take another break.

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Inside the pioneer building we realized that the American’s with Disabilities Act-accessible bathrooms on the first floor of the building had been blocked off, and that anyone with a disability would have to go up to the second floor.

To Ochoco

After what felt like forever, we finally made it to Ochoco building. By now I was more exhausted than ever; my arms wanted to fall off and my whole back was wet with perspiration. Rather slowly this time, I rolled my chair up to press the button so that the doors would open and they never did.

Since no one was supposed to help me, I reached for the door and tried to open it manually, all the while maneuvering the wheelchair through the door. I quickly found out that the in-between space between the first door and the second one isn’t big enough to have someone in a wheelchair linger there. By the time I finally made it in, I was tired, hungry, sweaty and in an all-around bad mood. Once inside, we ran into another problem – the elevators in the building were too small for a wheelchair.

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As I went inside with the chair, I had to turn to either the left or the right and ride the elevator while facing the wall. Once I reached the second floor, since I had no room to turn I had to get out the same way I went in, I had to wheel myself backwards out of the elevator before the doors shut on me, or else I would be stuck.

To Grandview

I was more than happy to leave Ochoco and its dark oppressing walls behind me. But one last major obstacle waited for me; the steep climb up to Grandview. Since there was no specific ADA walkway, I had to go along the normal road, which meant dealing with traffic from the students leaving or getting to class.

We tried keeping to the right as much as we could, but my wheelchair had other ideas. My chair kept trying to turn to the left, and every time I tried to push myself forward, the front wheels kept jumping up. At one point I almost fell backwards, and if it hadn’t been for Mike I would have ended square on my back and probably gotten hurt.

Everything in my body by this point was screaming at me to stop. I couldn’t even feel my arms anymore and my shoulders were pulsing with overexertion. If it hadn’t been for Britney next to me, showing me how it’s done, with a big smile on her face, I would have gotten off the wheelchair and called the whole thing off.

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As Grandview got closer and closer and the doors came into my vision, I tried telling myself “almost there, almost there, just a bit more.” My ego – which was bruised and battered – was left several meters behind, laying somewhere along the hill.

When we finally got to Grandview, once again, one of the doors didn’t work when we pressed the button. Needless to say, after some more struggling I managed to get the doors open and finally make it to my destination.

Britney, her dad, and everyone there were congratulating me for making it. Apparently, no one thought that I would. But I did. I had made it up to Grandview in a wheelchair.

Let’s set our goals higher

Being a campus that’s on a hillside comes with having an elevation difference between buildings, and that’s something the school’s administration can’t help. But there are so many little things out there that could be improved.

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I came into this experiment thinking I would breeze right on through, but that wasn’t the case. I came out humbled, with a new mentality and new respect for people like Britney.

Brayan Gonzalez | The Broadside
(contact: bgonzalez@cocc.edu)

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