Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Journal: Back to school

At the urging of my neurologist, I've enrolled in a bi-weekly fitness class at the University for the spring semester. In this class, though, I'm not so much a student as a subject. This is a class designed to teach a crop of undergraduates how to work with a disabled client. I'm one of a dozen or so 'clients' who are participating. Each of us will spend the semester working with a couple of students in the Kinesiology department, getting individual help in attaining our fitness goals. I'm making time for this by taking an extended lunch hour twice a week.

The class is held in an old gym/fitness complex deep in the heart of campus. It's a ten minute drive from my office, but I give myself a half hour to get there today because it's the first day of class and I'm uptight about being in the right place at the right time. I arrive twenty minutes early and am assigned a tiny locker in the labyrinthine locker room. After a brief flashback to 5th grade nightmares about forgetting the combination to my locker and being naked in front of strangers, I change out of my work clothes and into sweatpants, a T shirt, and tennis shoes. After a few minutes of wandering around, I find my way to Gym 6.

Gym 6 is big low-ceilinged room with odd pieces of exercise equipment scattered along the walls: bikes, weights, machines, floor mats. Inside, a bunch of people are milling around. There are maybe half a dozen people in wheelchairs and scooters. There are some people who appear to be developmentally disabled. There are a couple dozen sportily-dressed undergraduates sitting around. I spot the instructor, whom I'd met before, say howdy, and find a chair. The class doesn't start for another ten minutes.

I sneak furtive looks at various people in the room. There are a number of people who are obviously taking care of the obviously developmentally disabled people. They make small talk with their charges, using the exaggeratedly happy and articulated speech that is reserved for such conversations. "Heeyyyy, Sally! What's up, there? I haven't seen yoouu around here for a while." The undergraduates check their cell phones, shuffle papers. They look so young. They're almost all women, pretty and fit. In my mind, I'm feeling conspicuous: I'm not young and pretty enough, and I'm not disabled enough. A bell rings; class will now start. Wow. I'd forgotten about that.

Of course, we'll start by going around the room and introducing ourselves, talking a little about our goals for this class. I go second, saying something about how I'd like to improve my fitness generally and also figure out whether there are MS problems that exercise can help with. There's a woman in a scooter who has MS too. She looks friendly. She'd like to work on, among other things, standing.

Each client is assigned a couple of students to work with for the semester. I'm soon joined by two young women: A, who strikes me as a bit too earnest, and D, who strikes me as not really interested. We go through a form that requires, among other things, that I list the medications I'm taking. I grab the pen, start with Rebif, and then I can't remember the rest. I mutter to myself, and eventually come up some more: Provigil, Lyrica, baclofen, Oxytrol, Flomax, Serzone...it seems like there are others, but I can't remember them.

I talk with A and D briefly about my goals, what I'm doing currently. They suggest that I try water aerobics, and A disappears to find a schedule of water aerobics class offerings. I talk a little bit about some of my functional limitations: fatigue, weakness, etc. I talk about my efforts at swimming, about feeling guilty about not doing yoga anymore. I spot D's eyes wandering around the room, and I start feeling self-conscious. Finally, we are saved by the instructor, who tells me to try the bicycle contraption with the fan-flywheel and alternating arm-lever things. He demonstrates how it works, how you can do arms-only, or legs-only, or use just one leg, etc. He thing the fan will keep me sufficiently cool.

I hop on the thing and have a go. After a couple minutes, I notice I'm tending to make the thing go using my arms, not my legs. Is that okay? How long should I go at this? The contraption looks old-school, and the LCD counter/timer display doesn't work. I joke about it, suggesting that next, we should go over to the butt-jiggler-belt thingy. A and D don't know what I'm talking about.

The instructor tells us to wrap it up, and A, D, and I head over to the mat to do some stretches. The bell rings, and class is over. I say see you next time.

I'm committed to staying with this thing, because I think the best way to get me to exercise is to put me in a class. I'm too cheap to quit and lose my small fee, too conscientious to leave A and D without a client to work with for the semester. So I'll be back on Thursday, perhaps with snazzier workout clothes. But I think I've probably already learned something: I'm not that bad off; things could be worse.

I'm definitely the 'ablest' of the disabled in the class. My physically-disabled classmates are paraplegic, a woman with ALS, a young man who has suffered a traumatic brain injury, an older man who speaks slowly and walks, slowly, with a quad can. My developmentally disabled classmates are each accompanied by one or two caregivers. I don't think any of my classmates will, after class, head off to their good-paying full-time jobs.

It's hard not to focus in particular on B, the woman in the scooter with MS. She looks to be in her mid-40s, pretty, tired-looking, with a fragile half-smile. I guessed she had MS before she introduced herself. A part of me wanted to go to her and introduce myself, felt like we were members of the same club, the way you greet someone you learn went to your college. Didn't we have some deep thing in common? But I'm wary, and shy. I feel something akin to survivor's guilt; what have I done to deserve to escape the scooter? But then I remember that I shouldn't assume that, just because I'm not using a scooter, I'm necessarily happier or better off than B.

Whatever A and D can teach me about fitness, it feels like this class is really going to be about sorting out what I think it means to be disabled, to identify as disabled, to hang a blue tag on the rear-view mirror? I don't look anything like the stick figure in the wheelchair on the parking tag. But who does?

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1 comment:

Beth said...

I resent the fact that I get uncomfortable around people with disabilities mainly because I have one. I stutter, always have. I went to one of the best therapists in the country in grad school and he got me over a lot of the fear, anxiety and avoidance so now I stutter without caring, but it took me a while before I went to the stuttering support group. First of all I didn't think I needed support and secondly I didn't want to be faced with people who do what I do. After a few weeks I started loving it and found it very helpful- another step to not caring that I stutter.

Then, my first visit at the MS clinic it's like I started at first base again- I couldn't look at the people in the wheelchairs. I felt awful.