When students in Sherry Holloway‘s inclusive physical education class approached her with an idea to change their final project, she agreed immediately.
Through conversations with guest speakers and alumni throughout the year, students learned that students and visitors to Bemidji State University who use wheelchairs may have issues accessing certain parts of campus. Their idea for a final project, which they called Accessibility Allies, was to take a wheelchair tour of campus and map locations where they saw potential for improved accessibility.
“These are educators who will be going out into schools and trying to advocate for their own students,” Holloway said.
Seeing an opportunity to use the project to raise awareness of accessibility on campus, the students invited BSU President John L. Hoffman and his wife, Joy, to join them on the tour. Reporters from the Bemidji Pioneer and Lakeland Public Television also covered the tour.
Dr. Thomas Dirth, an associate professor of psychology at BSU who uses a wheelchair, also participated in the tour to share his perspective and experiences with the students.
“I’m excited that you are all experiencing campus using a wheelchair,” he said. “We have to keep in mind that human beings are immensely adaptable. So if it feels very hard for you to be using the wheelchair and going up hills, things like that, keep in mind that you develop upper body strength as someone who uses a wheelchair. The wheelchair is very liberating for people to use.”
Rather than focusing on obstacles faced by people who use wheelchairs, Dirth encouraged the students to instead view the tour as an opportunity to examine the advantages and choices available to those who are able.
“Our society is not where we need to be, but we’re getting better,” Holloway said.
Addressing the students, she added, “You’re going to work in spaces that are more diverse in terms of various sets of abilities than I have, or than previous generations have. As you think about your future job skills, you have to be prepared to live, work and learn from colleagues in these spaces. This is your future.”