A spin in the other guy's chair

Race lets students experience the tough going for disabled

By OREN YANIV
DAILY NEWS WRITER

Students at a downtown Brooklyn college got the chance to experience firsthand the ups and downs and ins and outs of life with a disability.
Long Island University sponsored its 17th annual Great American Wheelchair Race Thursday, sending participants rolling through a maze of corridors, elevators and sidewalks around the campus.

"The purpose is helping members of our college community to become aware of what life is like in a chair," said Bob Nathanson, a special education professor who organized the event. "Life is very possible [in] a wheelchair, but it's done differently."

About 60 students and a few faculty members - most of whom had never before used a wheelchair - took part in the race, which started in the Campus Arch on Flatbush Ave. Extension near the Manhattan Bridge. There was just one ground rule, but it was strict: Never step out of your chair.

Participants had to complete assignments along their path (like getting toilet paper from a bathroom or buying a snack at the coffee bar) and answer questions about various handicaps.

"They put us through obstacles that disabled people go through every day," said Patrick Vignona, a 21-year-old senior, after completing the route. "[It] made us realize it's not as easy as it looks."

Students rumbled through hallways and doorways, prevailed against bumps and minor mishaps and cheered those reaching the finish line. A balmy day complemented the playful mood.

The winning time was posted at an even 21 minutes.

Aaron Lieberman, 50, a professor in the school of education, completed the race in just over 25 minutes, becoming the first faculty member to finish in the top 10.

"It's an eye-opener," Lieberman said of his first ride in a wheelchair. "It's hard on the arms, makes you feel dependent and made me realize the importance of accessibility."

Maurice Gattis, 25, said the race made her appreciate how small doors and narrow corridors hamper simple activities when one is disabled.

"I think it gave me an insight of how important it is that all public buildings and transportation facilities should be accessible," she added.

Respect & understanding

Jeff Lambert, director of special education services for the university, called the event a "hands-on learning experience." He said it promotes respect and understanding of disabled people around the campus.

LIU is celebrating 35 years of services to students with disabilities, he added.

Vignona, a physical therapy major who plays soccer for the college team, finished in fifth place and said the race was quite tough.

Referring to those who use wheelchairs regularly, he added, "I'm sore just from doing it for 20 minutes. I don't know how they do it all day, every day."

Originally published on May 5, 2003



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