Walk & Roll in My Shoes
By Angela Nixon
That day you spoke to me and I didn’t speak back, I wasn’t sick. I didn’t have laryngitis. My inability to speak was completely voluntary.
I was participating in an event titled “Walk & Roll in My Shoes,” organized by Clemson University’s Student Disability Services in partnership with the Office of Access and Equity.
I’m a pretty chatty person. Anyone who knows me can attest to that. So losing my voice for an entire morning was an emotional challenge for me.
The blended immersion event was designed to raise awareness across campus of Clemson’s population of students with disabilities. On Thursday, March 10, several faculty, staff, student leaders and administrators volunteered to live with a disability for the morning, while going about their daily routine at work or in class. Each participant was partnered with a shadow — a student with a disability or a professional who has experience helping people with disabilities.
The shadows’ role was to educate their partners about their particular disabilities and to provide any assistive technology or equipment that each participant might need to get through the day. Participants were to go about their daily business under the functional limitations of their given disability. The experience was an emotional, lonely and most definitely eye-opening one, both for the shadows and the participants.
On that morning, I arrived at my office in Clemson’s Media Relations department, nervously wondering what my disability would be. The participants were not told in advance what they would be “diagnosed” with, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
Would I be blind? If so, how would I go about my job of writing news releases? How would I read and reply to e-mails? Would I have a mobility problem? If so, how would I get up the stairs to my office?
As it turned out, I had two shadows that morning — Patty Quattlebaum, a speech/language pathologist from the South Carolina Assistive Technology Program, and Courtney Porter, a graduate assistant with disability services. They arrived and handed me my diagnosis, a severe communication disorder, which meant I would not be able to speak. Quattlebaum allowed me to ask a few questions and then I had to remain silent for the next four hours.
I admit I was slightly relieved at first that it wasn’t something different, such as a visual impairment. But it didn’t take long for the reality to sink in that communication was going to be a challenge.
The first few minutes were difficult, as things I wanted to say kept popping into my head and I struggled not to say them. But Quattlebaum came prepared with a few assistive devices that would help give me a voice. After learning about and trying out the devices, I decided to use an iPad with a text-to-speech application. I would type in what I wanted to say, and the iPad would “speak” the text for me. But it was a slow process. It took a long time for me to type out my messages, so keeping up with conversation at a normal pace was difficult. Many times, I would spend several minutes typing something only to have the conversation move on to a different topic before I was able to say what I wanted to say. I soon found myself withdrawing from interacting with others as I normally would. It just became too frustrating to try to say anything.
As the morning went on, I decided to remain in the relative quiet of my office. The phone would ring from time to time, but I couldn’t answer it. Those calls would have to go to voice mail and be returned in the afternoon when I was allowed to talk again. Sometimes people would come in to ask me something or talk to me, and reactions to my disability were interesting. Some people were almost apologetic for even talking to me, as if they had offended me by doing something that I could not do myself.
So the morning wore on. I did converse with Quattlebaum and Porter some, but they often talked to one another while I worked at my computer. Sometimes they would apologize for not including me more in conversation, but at that point, it was easier for me not to be included.
After the morning was over, all the participants and shadows gathered with staff from SDS and Access and Equity for a luncheon to reflect on our experiences. I wasn’t off the hook yet, though — we had to continue our disabilities through the lunch.
At the lunch, I got to see the variety of disabilities the participants had to cope with for the morning, which is reflective of the variety of disabilities that many Clemson students live with every day — mobility problems, hearing impairment, visual impairment and ADHD. As I watched some people enter the room in wheelchairs, on crutches or wearing goggles to simulate visual impairment, I couldn’t help but feel that I had gotten off easy. I couldn’t talk, but I was able to communicate with the assistance of technology. I wasn’t physically impaired otherwise. I could walk, had full movement of my arms and could see and hear.
When I later expressed this feeling, other participants acted somewhat surprised that I felt my disability was easier than theirs.
“I was in a wheelchair, but I thought your disability would have been harder for me,” said participant Ryan Duane, Undergraduate Student Government president. “I can’t imagine not being able to communicate and express myself.”
The lunch turned out to be the most difficult part of the day for me. I was not able to easily participate in conversations at my table, so rather than try to jump in and say something, it was much easier to sit back and listen. When we were all sharing our reflections with the group, I kept mine short and sweet. “Not being able to speak was very isolating for me,” my computerized voice said.
“I got a lump in my throat when Angela said that,” said participant Verna Howell, associate vice president for Student Affairs.
My brief statement also had an impact on another participant, Rose Ellen Davis-Gross, staff senate president and marketing and assignments director for University housing.
“Knowing you the way I do, I know you wanted to say more but couldn’t. I knew you were struggling,” she said.
Howell, who was diagnosed with a severe leg injury for the event, had to move about campus all morning on crutches with a brace on her leg. She said the experience was very intense for her.
“I was surprised by the level of emotion the experience generated,” she said. “It was a simulation exercise, but the level of frustration, appreciation and empathy was very real and powerful.”
Duane, a senior from Irmo majoring in financial management, was partnered with a student with spina bifida and had to get around campus in a wheelchair.
“I was surprised at how tired it would make me. The physical exertion to do the simplest tasks was exhausting,” said Duane. “I was pleasantly surprised at how well our students responded to my disability, holding doors open or changing seats in class to accommodate us.”
The shadows also found the experience to be powerful. Sutton Fain-Schwartz, a junior from Clemson majoring in food science, was paired with Davis-Gross to simulate what it was like to have ADHD, the diagnosis she received as a child. Her job was to distract Davis-Gross as much as possible through the morning.
“There were times when I felt the tension rise in the room and I wanted so badly to reach out and help, but a part of me also wanted to observe and look in from the outside. It was a very unique experience for me,” Fain-Schwartz said.
Shadow Stephen Gosnell, a senior from Duncan double-majoring in psychology and political science, is a quadriplegic as a result of a spinal cord injury he suffered in a diving accident. He felt the day was a good first step toward raising awareness of the importance of universal design and accessibility.
“I feel it was a success and that the event increased awareness of what numerous students across Clemson University struggle with on a daily basis,” he said. “Even though the participants were able to shed their disability after a period of time, I feel that they are much more aware of these struggles and will be more understanding of disabilities and will also help with making Clemson University more universally designed.”
One of the biggest lessons of the day for me personally was simply not to make assumptions about people. Many people live with “invisible disabilities,” such as ADHD or a hearing impairment — or in my case for this event, a communication disorder. It’s easy to go through life assuming that everyone you encounter has the same abilities and advantages you do, but that is not always the case. And, in fact, the large majority of the students who receive help from Student Disability Services have invisible disabilities.
For me, participating in this event helped make me cognizant of the fact that just because a student doesn’t have a visible disability doesn’t mean he or she isn’t struggling with something that I can’t see. And even those with visible disabilities are struggling with issues that I may not realize.
Howell agrees and said she hopes to see Walk & Roll in My Shoes expand in the future to include even more people across campus.
“The barriers that exist to people with disabilities are often invisible to those without disabilities,” she said. “But they are very real, and we at Clemson need to work to eliminate those we can.”
Have a Clemson story you’d like to see us write about? Contact University writer Crystal Boyles at firstname.lastname@example.org.