As the school year is starting, some parents and children are preparing for the challenges of navigating school in a wheelchair. In a recent episode of Wheelchair Nerds, clinicians Erin Baker, PT, DPT, ATP, CPST, and Stephanie Frazer, MS, OTR/L, CPST, spoke about selecting and maintaining the right mobility device for school, ensuring safe transportation to and from school, and empowering students to fully participate in all aspects of school life, from academics to extracurricular activities.
Below is a portion of that interview where Angie, Erin, and Stephanie discuss the advice they would give to parents and kids going to school for the first time or transitioning to a different school.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What advice in terms of accessibility would you give parents with students either transitioning schools or going to school for the first time?
I love inclusion. I'm looking at does the school have desks that are adjustable for the student to sit where they can be in the same style or general manner as their peers. This does not mean just throwing a tray on their wheelchair and sitting them in the back corner.
I'm looking at can the student get through the doorways. What does the campus look like? Are there stairs? How is the student going to get between their classes?
If they have bathroom challenges, is there a bathroom space they can use for their accessibility needs? Or, is there an assistant to help manage that part of their day?
And something I brought up last time and is super important: what is the child’s exit strategy? We have so many drills in schools nowadays between active shooter lockdown drills, fire drills, tornado drills or, you know, all the things. Does your school have a plan and a way to get the student safely from the classroom to outside or wherever they are supposed to be during that drill? It’s important to talk to the school about the exit plan and make sure it’s figured out ahead of time.
Stephanie, anything else from the occupational therapist (OT) side of things?
Those are all really good points, especially the exit strategy which I literally haven't thought about before because I don't work in a school.
I also think that the desk thing is a huge, huge deal. I also run some special needs camps through Vanderbilt, and I always ask kids what their preference is: do they want to be at the table? If we're down on the ground, do they want to be on the ground? Do they need a break? If they are tired maybe they just want to sit in their wheelchair for a break. That's OK too. Like 99.9% of the time, if we're doing a mat activity and I ask the kid where do you want to be? They want to be on the ground and we get them on the ground. They want to be where their peers are and doing the things their peers are doing. These kids are not concerned with their bodies and limitations.
I love what Erin said about the tray. The tray can be a physical barrier to those around you. Yes, there's probably some convenience standpoints where a tray is appropriate for a kid, some special exceptions. But if you think of a kid in a wheelchair with this huge tray barrier around them, then other kids can't even get up next to them. The solution of getting that student’s arms positioned at that ideal 90 degrees would be my OT thing so they can do fine motor activities. Also making sure they're sitting next to their buddy and they can see what their friends are doing is really important socially.
Yeah, absolutely. Are they able to access the classroom whiteboard? How are the room configured with the desks? When I think of elementary schools, I imagine a lot of little activity centers or desk pods where kids have to navigate.
For more resources on going back to school check out Mobility Management's article "CRT in the Classroom."