A Lesson in Empathy: Education students spend 24 hours in wheelchair for class assignment

Dawn Murphy

Dawn Murphy experiences life on campus from a wheelchair as an assignment for her education class, "The Exceptional Learner."

When students saw Dawn Murphy ’13 moving across campus in a wheelchair this fall, most assumed the Presidents’ star soccer player had suffered an injury. Instead, Murphy— a history major and education minor—was one of a dozen students completing an assignment for an education elective, “The Exceptional Learner.”

The 300-level course, taught by Rosalie Carpenter, Ph.D., professor of education, focuses on the effective instruction and assessment of students who are gifted or have special needs. To experience first-hand the challenges faced by the physically handicapped, students are expected to spend 24 hours in a wheelchair, document their activities and write a paper about their experience.

“I was surprised about how exhausting it is to be in a wheelchair and the everyday challenges that people with physical disabilities face,” said Murphy, who also appreciated how many W&J students offered to help her get through doors and onto elevators.

In addition to using a wheelchair, students are asked to complete a variety of experiential learning assignments, from being asked to read a book where the print is backwards or upside down to simulate a reading disability to wearing ear plugs during class to simulate a hearing impairment.

“The purpose of these activities is to help create more empathetic and inclusive teachers,” said Carpenter, who started the class five years ago with department chair James Longo, Ph.D. According to Carpenter, W&J began offering the class right before laws were put into effect that promoted the inclusion of students with disabilities and gifted students into an average classroom. “W&J is always ahead of the game,” she added.

To research the accommodations offered to non-traditional learners, students are required to intern in an inclusive classroom setting. National and state laws, as well as school district guidelines, also are examined.

“These exercises help our students become better teachers, better parents and better ambassadors for W&J. We take so many of the little things for granted,” Carpenter said. “You just don’t know until you’ve walked in another person’s shoes.”

-Michele Krasnesky '12