I think I’ll talk about students with wheelchairs for a bit because that is foremost on my mind at the moment.
First off, I had a student get a brand new one today. The Wheelchair Man, the physical therapist and his mother all came to our noisy, crowded classroom in order to be a part of this event. This is his second new chair with me, as each student can get a new chair, paid for by Medicaid, once every 3 years. Once the student leaves the school system, it goes down to about once every 7 years. It makes some sense, since school aged kids are growing and will grow out of their chairs.
Most of my students have custom-made chairs. This is one reason why it takes several months between the time an intitial request is made and the time it finally arrives. First Medicaid has to approve the funding which can take a couple of months. Then measurements are taken and then the thing can finally be ordered. Basically if you start the process in May, you might see the chair by Christmas. Welcome to public healthcare.
Customizations include having a seat and back that best supports each unique student. It also may include custom tilt, brakes and even a custom drive train. I know of some students who have chairs that can be driven and steered with only one hand! And then there are the electic wheelchairs which are an entirely different category and issue.
So what is the deal with students in wheelchairs? Well, for one thing there is the issue of physical space. They take up a lot of it and they need a lot to move and turn. There’s also the accessibility issue of getting around on ramps and elevators. At one time when we had enough adults, we would often ride the Atlanta rapid transit system, and it was a major deal trying to find elevators and places to sit/park the chairs and then tried to negotiate the CNN Center. But that was when I had only 2 chairs.
Now I have many more. And when only one student can drive his chair independently, that means an adult has to push. And in the event of a fire drill, we simply do not have enough adults to move all of our students where they need to be. Just going to the cafeteria becomes a major ordeal! Our community time is pretty much a thing of the past because we need enough people to cover and lift and move students during any emergency. I’m tempted to stop by a nursing home just to get a feel for the logistics!
Over the years, I’ve learned how to make basic repairs and adjustments to most of the chairs. Wheelchair Man comes to our county about once per month, and that is not enough time to service all of the chairs in the county. And if the brakes are loose or a belt comes undone, I have allen wrenches and other tools available to make repairs. Chair mechanic is just one more hat I wear.
Sitting in the same spot, even if it is a custom chair, can get really uncomfortable after a couple of hours. As a result, we try to move everyone out and about every couple of hours. Usually around 10:00 we’re full into diaper changing and then positioning students in standers, wedges, mats and tumble form devices. It takes about 45 minutes to get everyone changed and positioned and it is VERY physically demanding. I’m usually ready for a break after everyone is in place! Once students are positioned, we can work with them on the mat or wherever they are to massage and stretch and just help them relax. After 30-45 minutes, we’re getting back in the chairs and read for lunch.
Transporting a wheelchair is not an easy thing. Many of the parents have a van with a lift but several do not. The lift van requires a lot of fuss and bother getting the chair strapped and positioned securely. Those without a lift usually have to break down the chair by removing the seat and back rest and then fold it. This is not an easy task and is also hard on the chair. Plus the student has to be transferred in and out of the chair. As a result, parents of my students don’t come to many open houses or curriculum nights or other events the school hosts. It is simply too enormous of an undertaking. They shop and buy groceries and take care of other business while the student is at school, hence the major custodial role the school plays. Teachers and school personnel really hate it that schools are mostly in the position of being tax funded daycares, but that is a huge part of what keeps the doors open.We provide safe and engaging places for the kids while parent work or do other activities vital to life.
The special ed. buses are all equipped with a wheelchair lift. While they may be a bit shorter than other route buses, they are still quite large. I drove these for community outings for about 7 years, and often the lift would malfunction resulting in either manually getting a kid off or us not being able to go. One time we had to back a bus up so that a deployed lift fit into the emergency door of a second bus, so a kid could get down and off! It was a real pain when the lift was stuck on the open position and we were out in the community.
I’m getting yet one more student in a wheelchair. I don’t see how I’m going to have room for everyone to lay down, stretch out or move around very much. I arranged my room to create more spaces than every for this purpose, but we’re still going to be short!
Thank you for enduring my rambling on about this topic. I’m so tired, I’m lucky to be half coherent at all!