Annette Green has spent part of her life being invisible.
The weeks, months and years she’s spent confined to a wheelchair made her shrink uneasily into the pocket of her black chair.
The student-teacher at Lincoln Heights Elementary School has multiple sclerosis.
“I’ve been in and out of a wheelchair since I was 3 years old,” she said, reflecting on the pain. “People have a tendency to pretend you’re not there.”
Being in a chair made her withdraw. Usually, the blue-eyed, brown-eyed girl was ignored, that is, until disparaging comments and cruelty took over.
As a child, other children teased Green. Their taunts broke her protective quietude, stopping her cold - more so than any narrow doorway that left her bewildered as to how to proceed.
“It was horrible,” she said, taking a deep breath.
So hurtful were Green’s experiences that she wants children to understand how difficult it is to spend your life or some portion of it dependent on a wheelchair.
She asked Bev Saruwatari, the fifth-grade teacher she’s been working with this semester, if she could give the kids a lesson in immobility. Every child in the class has spent a half-hour in Green’s wheelchair, which sits next to their teacher’s desk on a pale carpet square, brakes flipped on.
In the course of their 30-minute trial, the children carried a cup of water from their classroom, up the wheelchair ramp, turned around and rolled back down again.
The kids had to go to the restroom and wash their hands.
They crept their way through knots of students in the hallways, wended their way to the gym and tried to shoot a basketball.
“The stuff I went through as a child no child should go through,” said Green, who now navigates the narrow aisles of the classroom with a steel cane.
“We do so much in the classroom to fight against racism and sexism - all the ‘isms.’ “This is to fight able-ism,” she said.
“The project gives kids a better perception of what disabled people really face, and they’re only spending half an hour,” she said.
Green’s family moved to Spokane from California when she was 11. She attended school here but refuses to name those schools - places where she was mercilessly teased.
When she became an education major in college, Green was still in a wheelchair.
She found herself spending time with children.
Children would ask her all kinds of questions about what it was like to be in a wheelchair.
Many said they thought navigating a wheelchair all day might be fun, like tooling around in a bumper car.
“When I didn’t need it anymore, I let the kids try to get around in it so they would know what it was like,” Green said.
“They realized it wasn’t quite as easy, getting to the restroom or up to their desk … or their arms get tired or … oh, my bottom is going to sleep,” she said.
When Sam Cassel’s half-hour turn came, he said he thought it would be “kind of easy.”
“I had to take a glass of water down the school ramp,” he said. “The water kept spilling.
“And I had to shoot a basketball 15 times. I made it in once.”
Cassel, a tall, lanky fifth-grader, said the experience made him feel conspicuous.
“Other kids stared at me since we don’t have someone in our school who is constantly in a wheelchair,” said Cassel, sitting atop a wooden stool, knocking his white high-tops together.
“I felt really, really different. I kind of kept to myself,”
Even though the school’s restrooms are wheelchair accessible, Cassel discovered the sinks are hard to reach because somone in a wheelchair must pull up to them sideways.
“Washing your hands is something you do daily,” he said. “When you’re in a wheelchair, everything is a challenge to you.”
The bumpy, tiled floors of the restroom caused the rubber wheels to swing wildly.
The chair didn’t fit under the basin; he couldn’t reach the faucets or the soap.
Each student had a partner to open and close doors for the student in the wheelchair. But those dependent upon a wheelchair rarely have a companion to execute some of the more demanding tasks, such as opening a door.
Lincoln Heights’ halls are wheelchair accessible. A ramp leads from one part of the school to the other.
But even with the ramp, the incline feels steep.
Going up the ramp, Chong Vang, 10, said he thought he was going to tip over backward. He lost control of the “push rim,” the second wheel used to push and steer the chair.
“I scraped the sides of my hands on the doorways. It was so hard because the halls are so narrow,” Vang said.
Despite the school’s emphasis on accepting diversity, the playground whispers were persistent, said Katrina Baker, a slight, serious fifth-grader.
“At recess I overheard other people make fun of Ms. Green,” she said.
“They think it’s funny, or they’re mean to people that are handicapped,” Baker said. “I think it’s rude.
“What if they got in a car wreck someday and broke their neck? Then they would be handicapped.”
Baker’s turn left her asking Saruwatari for a clipboard to do her homework.
“The chair wouldn’t fit the desk,” she said. “My arms felt like jello afterwards.”
In the classroom, even common items become potential obstacles when kids are trying to wheel to their desks.
Backpacks slung over chairs catch the chair’s armrests.
The students’ desks, arranged in clusters of four, create narrow pathways through the classroom.
And the green tennis balls attached to the underside of student chairs to protect the floor from scratches tangle with the rubber tires.
Such obstructions made the experiment more realistic for the students.
“I was pleased Annette did this exercise - to have a student-teacher with a disability fit right in,” Saruwatari said.
“Annette is free to talk about it. It really raised the level of awareness.”
Two other teachers at Lincoln Heights - fifth-grade teacher Griff Stokes and fifth- and sixth-grade teacher Oweta Floyd - have asked Green to coordinate the same exercise in their class.
Once students complete the exercise, they often become more aware of how the world accommodates the handicapped.
“They pay attention to where the access is,” Saruwatari said.
“Would you be able to enter this building and get through the aisle? Where is the the handicapped parking. Is it way off?”
“The project is well worth the time,” she added.
“Everybody has a challenge. Maybe it’s obvious. Maybe it’s not,” Green said.
“Every single one of us has a challenge.
“I can help people understand the challenge.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 photos (1 color)
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