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Students to deliver wheelchairs to Africa

By Glenn Evans
May 1, 2010 at 7:15 p.m.


A LeTourneau University project to deliver specialized wheelchairs to African children contrasts the lifestyles of people with disabilities here and elsewhere.

"There have been great strides in America," said Rachel Follingstad, a junior kinesiology student who will spend two weeks in Kenya this summer fitting children at a specialized boarding school into 45 pediatric wheelchairs she's helping deliver.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 set standards here attempting to ensure people with mobility challenges have access to public places. The Act also established workforce regulations summed up in the phrase, reasonable accommodation.

Advocates for people with disabilities applaud this country's good will toward its own citizens, though many say full implementation of the Act remains elusive - successful lawsuits brought several years ago against Northeast Texas county courthouses, including the one in Gilmer, illustrate that point.

"It's really just about being accepted and treated with respect," said Judie Moffett, who founded People On Wheels Encouraging Responsibility in 1999 for Northeast Texans facing disability. "I have been accepted, but I think it's because I have an open mind and smile. I don't expect everything to be perfect."

Follingstad and a handful of LeTourneau students will find themselves this summer in a country where people with disabilities, especially children, are shoved to the corner - literally.

"It's just completely different there," said Follingstad, who grew up in Kenya where her parents work for the Summer Institute of Linguistics. "Disabilities in a third world country are looked down upon. We would visit these homes, and these kids would be left in a corner, on the ground. It's just completely different - they're looked down upon and have no special things made for them."

On Tuesday, Follingstad and fellow LeTourneau student Elizabeth Richardson were practicing the testing they will undertake in Kenya with donated Regency pediatric wheelchairs they are delivering for Joni and Friends. The organization was founded by Joni Eareckson Tada, a Christian author and radio host who was paralyzed in 1967.

With volunteer students from Christian Heritage School, the two LeTourneau missionaries practiced fitting a child to a chair and then evaluating what kind of team the child and chair had formed.

"Do you have the data punch recorder?" Assistant Professor of Biology Karen Rispin asked Follingstad after the student put away the wrenches she had used to make sure volunteer Abby Sieh's feet nestled properly in the foot rests. "OK, I think we're all set up."

Follingstad, 20, and Richardson, 18, embarked on a set of tasks designed to assess how well each student's volunteer subject was able to interact with the chairs.

There was an energy cost test, in which heart monitors revealed how much human power was spent moving about. A six-minute roll evaluated how smoothly the chair moved across floors and grass.

Skills drills included picking up items from the floor and negotiating around cones.

Moffett, whose POWER group hosts a fall Sports Fest on Gladewater Lake each fall, called the LeTourneau effort praiseworthy.

"Having a chair that doesn't fit you right can do more damage to you," she said, explaining she is susceptible to scoliosis if she and her wheelchair don't match.

She also applauded the mission.

"Basically, having wheels rather than skirting across the floor is an improvement," she said. "But, if you get technical about it, it goes a lot deeper than just a chair with wheels on it."

Moffett gave passing marks on how well America treats its own citizens in wheelchairs, but urged vigilance. She and others are certified through the Longview Police Department to ticket drivers who illegally take parking spots reserved for people with mobility challenges.

She contemplates organizing spot inspections to see how well local businesses comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"I don't feel the need to be forceful or aggressive, or demanding," Moffett said. "I would rather educate people in businesses."

A questionnaire rounded out the LeTourneau students' assignment - how satisfied was the child with the chair? How easy or difficult was it to maneuver"

"How do you feel about yourself in this wheelchair?" Rispin quoted the questionnaire. "Those are what they call psycho-social parameters."

The students will be doing this for real, beginning June 18, with children at the Joy Town Special Primary School for Disabled Children in Thika, Kenya. Some 350 children live at the boarding school - they are the lucky ones.

"We're not quite sure how things are going to go," said Richardson, a biology major. "But, I'm anticipating working with a lot of kids who need a lot of help and someone to love them."

The professor agreed the African country lags far behind this one in offering people with disabilities a fighting chance at independence.

"Generally, people (here) can get help, and get pediatric help, and have access to a therapist," Rispin said. "Over there, there's not enough money to make sure, or inclination to make sure, that every school is accessible. In general, if somebody's handicapped, they are thought of as cursed. Here, it's kind of OK to be 'bionic,' if you know what I'm saying. Over there, it's not."

A pediatric physical therapist who works with children in six counties, and is advising Rispin's crew, agreed stigmas surrounding wheelchair use are melting in America.

"We're doing really good," said Sue Hayward, who also owns Kidz First Therapy in Longview. "There are resources to get people with disabilities minimal equipment - most people can get a chair, and mobility items to get around their homes."

Hayward also said Americans with disabilities have varying opportunities to feel like they are part of society. She cited a friend who was denied a wheelchair lift for her vehicle by Medicaid, a woman rescued from shut-in status by a local service club.

"You can't be socially accepted if you're at home all the time," she said. "I think the younger generation is doing better, as far as accepting people who are disabled. The older generation still just stares. 'I may be sitting, but I'm a person.' That's right."

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