A level playing field

25th June 2010 at 01:00
As part of Nina McDonald's ongoing disability awareness initiative in Rothesay Academy, she organised "Wheels Week"

As part of Nina McDonald's ongoing disability awareness initiative in Rothesay Academy, she organised "Wheels Week" (June 14-18), a school-based charity event in which pupils and teachers were sponsored to spend a full day in a wheelchair.

In addition, Nina was raising money for Glasgow-based charity Neil's Wheels, which provides sports wheelchairs for young people with a wide range of disabilities, to enable them to participate in various sporting activities with their peers.

"I thought it would be a great idea to organise a fundraising event to raise awareness of the range of challenges facing young people like myself," Nina explains.

"Wheels Week provided a number of pupils and staff with an opportunity to experience just what it was like to have to spend your whole day in a wheelchair, and gave them a much better understanding of the barriers we face on a daily basis.

"In addition, I hoped to raise plenty of money for Neil's Wheels, because it makes a huge difference to the lives of many young wheelchair-users in Scotland."

Nina and her "team" - fellow wheelchair-user Nino Zavaroni-Robertson and school house captain Amy Williams - also organised a teachers versus pupils charity basketball match at the end of Wheels Week. This was followed by a discussion forum in which pupils and staff had the opportunity to debate a range of disability-related issues.

While Nina took the lead role from the outset in organising and promoting Wheels Week, she had "terrific" support from Ailsa Cassidy, the school's youth worker.

"This initiative will have a number of important spin-offs," says Ailsa. "In addition to raising a lot of money for charity (about pound;500), it has helped improve public awareness of the issues which affect young disabled people. However, it has also been a tremendous piece of personal development for Nina herself, and has really helped boost her own confidence."

Another staff member who has played an important role in Nina's development is Lynnsay Templeton, an additional support needs assistant. "Nina has had to face a number of really challenging situations in school over the years," explains Lynnsay. "The Wheels Week project will undoubtedly have improved others' understanding of disability issues, but it has also boosted Nina's self-esteem, simply because she has led the event from the front.

"It will also have gone a long way towards getting Nina's main message across, which is that disabled people should never let their disability get in the way of living their life to the full."

So, what did the pupils and staff who volunteered to spend a whole day in a wheelchair actually think of the experience?

"I'm absolutely shattered!" gasped Alan Maconie, a modern languages teacher who had been in his borrowed sports wheelchair since he arrived in school at 7.30 am.

"I found the doors very heavy and hard to open from my chair. It was also difficult trying to get around the classroom, and even writing on my board was extremely awkward. However, what really surprised me was that my own confidence and authority dipped considerably, simply because I was sitting at a much lower level."

"Look at my hands!" exclaimed Rhiannon McElwee, an English teacher, holding up both palms to reveal a number of angry-looking blisters. "It really is exhausting trying to propel yourself along the corridors in a wheelchair."

Theresa Minnes, a fifth-year pupil, also thought the experience had been fascinating. "I found the whole thing very tiring," she said. "We don't have any wheelchair-bound teachers in Rothesay Academy, but I think pupils were surprised at the sight of some of them wheeling themselves around the classroom. It certainly seems to have made everyone more aware of the difficulties facing disabled people of all ages."

By the end of the week, around 20 volunteers had spent a whole day in a wheelchair, and Neil's Wheels had its much-needed funds boosted considerably.

Even more importantly, perhaps, the pupils and staff of Rothesay Academy have become more enlightened in their appreciation of the barriers facing disabled people.

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