Today is Thursday, August 17, 2017

Raising awareness and empathy

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Friendship Christian fifth-grader Alex Johnson has been in a wheelchair for the last five years. He said it is a much different experience than most would assume.

"People don't realize what it is like to actually be in a wheelchair. They think it's basically easy with a little bit of a challenge to do things differently. That's not the case. It is mostly challenging. It is challenging to figure out how to do everything," Alex, age 11, said.

That is why he created The Team ALeX Challenge.

The challenge was to get teachers, coaches and peers to, literally, spend a day in his wheels.

Alex said he came up with the idea a couple of years ago and talked to his dad, Friendship Athletic Trainer Nathan Johnson about it.

"He came up with 'Spend a Day in my Wheels,'" Nathan explained. "We talked to the administration about it. If this takes off, we hope to spread it into the community."

A total of six people at Friendship Christian spent the school day in a wheelchair, thanks to a partnership with the Permobil Foundation of Lebanon.

Teacher and coach Greg Armstrong was one of them. He described the day as an eye-opening experience.

He got into the wheelchair at 7:30 a.m. and did not walk again until school let out at 2:45 in the afternoon.

"I didn't realize it was such a challenge to go up a hill. I still can't figure out how the bathroom thing works," he said. "I had trouble with simple things like getting a cup of coffee. I got my lunch and going back to the classroom spilled my lunch all over my lap."

Another thing he didn't consider before spending a day in wheels is how uncomfortable it feels to be lower in a crowd.

"Being in a crowd at waist level and everybody else standing above you is a little intimidating. It is different," Armstrong said. "I think (spending a day in a wheelchair) is the difference of having sympathy and empathy. It is how we relate to it."

Alex has not always been in a wheelchair. His dad said that he has a form of skeletal dysplasia - which is essentially a bone growth abnormality.

"He walked as a toddler, progressed to a walker and now we are in a wheelchair," Nathan said. "He thought that challenging people to do what he has to do every day would help them understand what those in mobility devices have to deal with. Even though facilities are ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant, it is still a challenge to get around."

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