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ECU students Travis Taylor, Monique Linder, Jennifer Hill and Randy Romich (seated, left to right) share their reactions with communication instructor Linda Vangelis (standing). The students had completed a simulation exercise in which they experienced life with disabilities. (Photo by Joy Holster)

Students Confront Disabilities

By Barbara Bullington

On Feb. 20, students from Linda Vangelis’ course in Health Communication, offered through the School of Communication, participated in an exercise created to broaden their awareness of communication and disabilities.

Vangelis said that the 26 students in her course had an opportunity to gain perspective about disabilities through an exercise requiring students to travel down the elevator in Joyner East, go to the library and check out a book, go to the student center to buy a snack or beverage and then return to the classroom.

Nine of the students were assigned wheelchairs. Eight students used canes and wore nightshades to hinder their sight. The remaining students served as spotters for the others but also had four fingers of each hand bound together to simulate arthritis.

This project was “a way to give the students an experience outside of the textbook” that would enhance their perspectives about having a disability, Vangelis said.

Afterwards, students wrote about the experience by discussing how it felt, what happened to them, how they reacted to others and how others reacted to them. These reflective essays also required students to make connections between their observations and textbook theory.

Vangelis pointed to a health communication theorist noted for stating that we will all be disabled at some point.

“He explained that we are enabled for a short time in our lives, but that eventually, we will all become disabled,” Vangelis said.

She said that one of the goals of the exercise was for students to understand that, even when disabled in some way, a person still has strengths and abilities.

The health communication course explores how our society communicates about health. This project is part of the course focus on communication about disabilities and health challenges, and areas of application, such as how to better manage relationships.

Although the exercise was only for one class, students did seem to learn from the experience, especially with regard to relating to others.

 “My mom has arthritis and this participation gave me a better understanding of what she’s going through,” stated student Loannsha Revis, whose fingers were bound for the exercise. “My mom can be as active as a teenager but then there are days when she’s not able to do many things, especially during cold weather. Now that I know how she feels at times, I can do more to help her out.”

“People are generally very nice,” Jessica Gentek said. “Many people that surrounded me while I was in the wheelchair were eager to help me. One woman offered to wheel me up a steep ramp. Another man pulled me out of a hole I had slipped into.”

Vangelis has encouraged all of her students to enter their essays at ECU's undergraduate research symposium.

Tony Schreiber, the ADA/504 coordinator at University Health Systems/PCMH, arranged for the class to borrow nine wheelchairs. Patrick Parker, rehabilitation counselor at the Division of Services for the Blind, loaned eight canes.

This page originally appeared in the April 17, 2006 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at