As play prep, theater students get life lessons in wheelchairs

Spring Lake High School drama teacher David Theune doesn't want life lessons to take a back stage to theater productions.
Marie Havenga
Oct 19, 2011

In advance of the school’s production of “The Elephant Man” next month, Theune had cast members spend 24 hours in wheelchairs from Tuesday through this morning so they could sample what it’s like to be disabled — and to be different.

“The Elephant Man,” which students will perform at 7 p.m. Nov. 10-12 at the school auditorium, is about a severely deformed man in 19th-century London.

“I’m always excited when I can have my productions connect to the world,” Theune said. “There’s no way that our 24 hours can mean anything compared to what people go through with the issues they have, but this gives us a moment where the physical look is different from the norm, and I want my students to feel that.”

Theune had students journal their experiences, thoughts and feelings during their chair time.

After 12 hours in her wheelchair, junior Hadlee Garrison said she was more tired than usual. During swim practice, she swam more than an hour with only her arms.

“Mr. Theune’s wife is my swim coach and she had me just use my arms,” Garrison said. “This experience really gives me a feel for what a lot of people have to go through every day.”

Garrison said she noticed many limitations — including locker difficulties, and trouble getting in and out of the car.

“It was hard to be so dependent on other people for so many things,” Garrison said Tuesday night. “It was hard getting stuff out of my locker. I had to have other people do it for me. I couldn’t reach high places.”

Garrison said she found herself over-explaining the wheelchair to others who weren’t aware of the class project.

“In the beginning, no one knew what was going on, so I had to explain,” said Garrison, who plays Pinhead and the Duchess in the school play. “I learned how people must feel having to explain things over and over to people who are curious.”

But it was people she didn’t know who had reactions she had rarely encountered before.

“They thought I really had to be in a wheelchair,” Garrison said. “They would avoid eye contact with me. I noticed that and took note. I’m excited to get out of the chair, but I’m glad that I did this.”

Freshman Riley Warmoth said his experiences being wheelchair-bound for a day were different than what he expected.

“I found it much easier to be at school in it because, by law, everything is handicap accessible,” he said. “At my home, it’s so hard to squeeze through tight hallways and sharp turns. I also noticed that everyone felt obliged to open doors for me or let me cut them in lines.”

Theune said many of his students learned that they needed the help of others more than they may have expected.

“We all recognize that this project reflects just a minuscule part of what someone in a wheelchair goes through every day,” Theune said. “It’s not meant to give pity to anyone, but to give a different perspective to the students as well as some new understanding. And that’s what it’s all about.

“Remember — people are frightened by what they don’t understand,” he added.

In addition to the wheelchair experience, Theune had his cast members listen to three public speakers on Monday evening — Spring Lake special education Sandy Baker and her 19-year-old son, Eric, who has Down’s syndrome; and student Trevor Billinghurst, who lost all of his hair due to an auto-immune deficiency.

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