Published: October 30, 2012
From Education Life:
Campus as Obstacle Course
A Wheelchair Tour of Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa
Brian Lehmann for The New York Times
Alex Watters does a wheelie in a parking lot at his alma mater, Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. He damaged his spine in a diving accident freshman year.
By ROGER H. MARTIN
THE specially equipped Dodge Sprinter pulled into the Morningside College parking lot, transporting my campus guide and his Quickie 646 SE motorized wheelchair. Alex Watters was returning to this small liberal arts college in Sioux City, Iowa, for a wheelchair tour of the campus he had navigated as an undergraduate. Our mission was to understand some of the challenges faced by students with a physical disability for a book I was writing on the first-year college experience.
I stuck my hand out. Alex could raise his arm but had no mobility in his hands, so I shook his outstretched fist. Freshman year, he had damaged his spinal cord in a diving accident and lost the use of his legs and hands. “Ready to go?” he asked as I grabbed my manually operated wheelchair, on loan from the nursing department.
“Ready as ever,” I said, not altogether sure how to operate the thing. As I struggled to get over the tiny ribbon of tar between the parking lot and sidewalk, Alex zipped around the lot doing wheelies, as if to say, “You have no idea what you’re in for.”
Motoring backward while talking, like an admissions office tour guide, he was contagiously optimistic. “Sure, I have challenges now,” he said, “but I’m not going to let them take over my life.”
ALEX WATTERS comes from Okoboji, a small town in the northwest corner of Iowa, on the border with Minnesota. He had applied to the University of Iowa and Drake but chose Morningside because he was heavily recruited to play golf. He had been captain of his high school team junior and senior years. When he arrived on campus — it was fall 2004 — he was full of excitement and expectation.
The second week there, Danielle Westphal — a classmate with whom he had won a dance contest during orientation — invited him to a family get-together on Lake Okoboji. He and a friend drove up to the cabin, arriving at about 10 p.m. As the guests toasted marshmallows around a bonfire, Alex and his hostess’s younger brother decided to go for a swim. The weather was beginning to get cold. He figured this would be his last swim of the season.
The two of them changed into their trunks and walked 150 feet out onto the dock. A gust of wind blew, and Alex’s hat flew off, landing near a boat hoist. He took off his shirt and dived in after it. But there was a sandbar. The water was only 18 inches deep. He heard his neck snap.
“I remember laying face-first underwater,” Alex said, a crack in his voice. “At first I tried to start swimming, but of course I couldn’t move. I thought, this was it. I’m a pretty religious person, so I was thinking, ‘I’m O.K. with this if it happens.’ And then I blacked out.”
At first the young boy thought Alex was playing a joke on him. Then he sensed something was terribly wrong. He ran back to the cabin to get help. They came running, and Danielle jumped into the water feetfirst and knelt beside Alex. He had now been under water more than two minutes. She turned him over and gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. E.M.S. arrived, and from the local hospital he was quickly airlifted to Mercy Medical Center in Sioux City.
“Next thing I remember are Mom and Dad and our pastor standing by my bed and the surgeon telling them about the operation I would soon have,” he told me. His spinal cord wasn’t severed but pinched. “Your spinal cord is like a banana,” Alex said. “If you bend it severely enough it won’t necessarily break but it will be permanently damaged.”
After surgery to stabilize the vertebrae in his neck, Alex underwent therapy for six months at a rehabilitation hospital in Denver. I asked him what he was feeling at this point. He and his parents had become interested in stem cell research, and the possibility he would someday walk again. “But I really didn’t want to live my life hoping I would walk again when the chances were I might not,” he said. “Even at that point, I was pretty happy with who I was and even then I was thinking about the possibility of returning to college.”
He took courses at Iowa Lakes Community College that summer, and the next fall returned to Morningside to resume his first year.
WE maneuvered our wheelchairs to the path leading to Roadman Hall, where Alex had lived next door to his assistant when he returned to college following the accident. “Since I cannot use my hands,” he said, “I needed someone constantly to assist me,” including taking notes and typing papers as he dictated.
“Wheelchair students like me usually get two principal accommodations: a handicapped-accessible residence and classes arranged on the first floor of a classroom building or a classroom building with an elevator,” he explained. “Since I was the first wheelchair freshman at the college in recent memory, we had some groundbreaking to do.”
Alex had wanted to live in the Plex with his first-year classmates, but rooms were not reachable by wheelchair. “Freshman year, most of my classmates lived in other buildings, and I couldn’t visit them,” he said. Roadman had first-floor rooms, and they were larger because they had once housed married students. Moreover, Roadman was closer to the student center and academic buildings he would use.
Trouble was, the rest of the first floor was occupied by upperclass women. “So I broke two barriers. Not only was I the first freshman in recent memory confined to a wheelchair, but I was also the first male to live in a women’s dorm!”
We approached the front door. The college had installed automatic openers for Alex, but he wanted me to see how hard it is to get through heavy doors without them. There would be many doors to push through on campus. “Try it without the door opener,” he said, “and you’ll see what I mean.”
I tried to push the door open using the footrests on the front of my wheelchair. But the door could be released only by pushing the bar in, and I couldn’t quite reach it. So I turned my chair around and tried it backward. After several tries, I finally leveraged the door open and squeezed through. Alex just grinned.
As we wheeled down the hall, he pointed to the door of the room where he had lived. The college had to replace the doorknob, which he couldn’t grasp, with a lever he could force down using his arm. People who have mobility in their hands and feet simply take these things for granted. In the bathroom down the hall, he demonstrated what he had to do to hoist himself into the shower and onto a small plastic chair he set in the corner.
“Since my hall mates were women, you should have seen how I got here. I had to strip naked and then streak down through the hallway in my wheelchair hoping no one entered at that moment.” He laughed as he said this, then paused. “Well, that’s not quite the story. I did put a towel over my lap.”
My arms were beginning to ache as we left Roadman and headed toward the nearby Olsen Student Center. As we started to cross Peters Avenue, a car driven by a woman talking on her cellphone sped through the crosswalk without stopping.
“Can you believe?” Alex shouted, flipping his wheelchair in reverse. “This happens all the time.”
At the ramp up the front side of the student center, he cautioned me not to run off the concrete and into the flower beds. “Once, during the winter when it was icy, I slid off into a snowbank,” he said. “I could have been buried alive for months!”
He pulled his chair to a place about 25 feet beyond the dining hall entrance and faced the wall. “When I came here as a freshman, there was an elevator right here that could take me to the floor below where student meeting rooms are located. During the time I was attending school, they took out the elevator to make the entryway and dining hall more presentable, figuring all they needed to do was provide a handicapped-accessible bathroom on this floor. Can you believe they took out the elevator?” He was clearly angry. “I now had to drive around to the back of the building to access the lower floor.”
We left the student center and headed next door to the Robert M. Lincoln Center, a classroom facility near Roadman where Alex took most of his classes. Scheduling class sessions there for him was one of his most important accommodations. Because cost can be prohibitive, most colleges and universities retrofit only essential buildings and have few academic buildings that can accommodate a wheelchair. Currently, five of Morningside’s 1,200 undergraduates have a mobility impairment; one is in a wheelchair. Of the campus’s 21 buildings, eight are now accessible, including a new residence hall (though it’s down a steep hill); three are partly accessible.
We entered a first-floor seminar room and settled around a table. I really needed the rest.
I ASKED Alex about his mind-set when he arrived back on campus in a wheelchair.
“I immediately faced two challenges, one physical and the other psychological,” he said.
“On the physical side, there were no door openers in campus buildings. You just experienced firsthand what it’s like to open heavy doors when you are in a wheelchair. You can imagine how impossible it was for me in the beginning.”
“But perhaps the most significant challenge was psychological,” he said. “For example, when I went into the cafeteria for my meals, I refused to use eating equipment designed for quadriplegics. Instead, I insisted my assistant feed me on the ludicrous notion that I would look less disabled if she did. I was terrified that people might stare at me if they saw me using this contraption.” He motioned to a strap with an attached spoon that he keeps in the pouch of his wheelchair. “But they stared at me anyway. As you can imagine, it took time for me to get comfortable with my new image.”
Seats were taken out of Lincoln Center’s amphitheater to make space for Alex’s wheelchair at lectures. Morningside also created a turnaround space in the seminar room where we were now seated. “So in class here, I had to sit in front of the room and consequently every move I made was in full view of the class.” As he said this, he was manipulating his chair to a horizontal position, much as one can in the first-class cabin on an international flight.
“Especially in long classes, I had to shift my weight as I am doing now so that my blood could recirculate,” he explained. “People who are mobile rarely think of it, but no one can stay seated in the same position for one or two hours straight without moving. But if you are in a wheelchair, you are stuck in the same position. So periodically I have to mechanically shift my weight. But now imagine doing this in the front of class. All of a sudden, people are staring at you, not listening to the professor. Believe me, this can be humiliating.”
I asked Alex what advice he had for disabled high school students contemplating college. He had obviously been asked this question many times before.
“Get over your fear of talking to people,” he said. “You’ve got to be O.K. asking strangers for help. Most people want to be of assistance anyway. It makes them feel good. Plan things out. Talk to your professors and ask them not only what you need from them, but what they need from you. Build a support system by joining a fraternity, like I did, or by participating in a club.”
What about dating?
“My way of meeting women now is the same way as when I could walk — confidence,” he said. “Women love men who are confident. I can’t do little things like holding hands to show affection. So I play to my strong suit. Holding hands just isn’t one of them. But having confidence, like being able to carry on an intellectual conversation, is.”
I believed him. During the tour, young women — lots of young women — came running over to greet him.
And what of the future?
Alex was quick with his answer: “Before I die, I want to accomplish eight things in life. Lobby Congress around handicap access. Be an activist for organizations that work for the disabled. Be a nationally known motivational speaker. Write a book about my life. Work with juveniles around conflict resolution. And own a golf course, bar and restaurant.”
We wheeled out of Lincoln Center to make our way back to his van, but I got stuck in the grass and couldn’t move an inch. Alex shook his head.
“Watch this,” he said as he flipped his wheelchair into high gear and raced across Peters Avenue at about 12 miles an hour.
THIS fall, Alex is a paid field organizer for the Sioux City arm of Organizing for America, a community group working on President Obama’s re-election — “my first full-time job!” he exclaimed in a phone conversation. Since our tour at Morningside, he has completed his master’s degree in conflict resolution at Creighton University in Omaha and served an internship at the Department of Education in Washington, D.C.
“My life seems to take these incredible turns,” he said.
Now 26, he feels he is facing his biggest challenge. “I was able to persevere through college and graduate school,” he said, “but the scariest thing has been transitioning into the job market. I have great intentions, but getting a job is so frightening to me. With my disability, I constantly worry about whether I will be able to use my education.”
He had recently applied for a position as a diversity consultant at a large state university. “One of the requirements of this job is a driver’s license,” he said.
Then he added, “I haven’t let that stop me before.”
A few weeks later, he told me he was turned down.
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Roger H. Martin is president emeritus of Randolph-Macon College and author of “Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Freshman Again.”