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Able-Bodied to Learn by Living Like the Disabled

November 08, 1987|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — Susan Kaibney was not able to dance at her high school homecoming this weekend.

Leanne Lindner is worried about the logistics of using the restroom.

And Dana Block fears collisions with fast-moving pedestrians at California State University, Long Beach, where all three are students.

"I feel insecure," said Block, 20, a physical therapy major. "I don't know what's going on behind me or to my sides."

The reason: special goggles treated with masking tape to eliminate her peripheral vision.

Block is wearing the goggles for seven days as part of an exercise involving nearly 50 fellow students. During the same period--which began Wednesday--Kaibney, 18, is outfitted with a leg brace and crutches, while Lindner, 21, is contending with one hand effectively immobilized by a finger-less cloth glove.

To Develop Sensitivity

The purpose "is to make people more sensitive to the lives of handicapped people," said Cathy Shimozono, the elected campus commissioner of disabled students and coordinator of the project.

"This is tremendous," said David Sanfilippo, staff director of disabled student services and a member of the university administration. "We've put people in wheelchairs for an hour or two, but never anything like this."

The ambitious project called Give-a-Care is the brainchild of Shimozono, a 40-year-old English major who has spent the last 17 1/2 years in a wheelchair because of a spinal lesion of unknown cause. "Too many times I go to cross the street and can't get down the ramp because someone is blocking it," she said. "Or go to park and can't because someone (unauthorized) is using the space. People just don't care."

To provide a partial antidote, she placed several ads in the campus newspaper seeking volunteers. Those who responded were asked to fill out questionnaires, which Shimozono then used as a basis for assigning disabilities. Although students were not allowed to choose their disabilities and were not told what they would be until Wednesday, she said that care was taken not to put participants in situations that would endanger their livelihood or safety.

Besides leg braces, hand socks and goggles that simulate three different types of visual impairment, participating students (and some staff or faculty members) were consigned to wheelchairs, fitted with back braces and arm slings or given headsets to simulate hearing impairments.

The rules are simple. Using the honor system, participants--some of whom are getting class credit for their involvement--are expected to keep their disabilities for seven days, until freed of them at a second meeting Wednesday.

Before-and-after questionnaires, as well as journals kept by the students during the week, will be used to help train staff members and teach courses on the psychology of disability, Sanfilippo said.

But the mood at the first meeting was apprehensive as participants waited to find out what temporary physical constraints were about to be placed on their lives.

"I'm terrified to death of this," said Chris Ryan, a 26-year-old finance major, after learning that he would be using a wheelchair. "I'll have to learn where all the ramps are. It will be very uncomfortable."

Lani Nothwang, 22, said she had been inspired to participate by some of her class work dealing with the problems of the disabled. Having been issued a headset that simulated a hearing impairment, she said she would work out a system of "flicking lights" to communicate with her mother, with whom she lives.

By the end of the day, in fact, many participants seemed to be devising ways of coping with their disabilities and in some cases even enjoying them.

"It's been fun so far," said Jane Weed, 22, sitting in her wheelchair at a bus stop next to the bicycle she had ridden to school that morning. "Tomorrow I'll take Dial-a-Ride."

And Kaibney, hobbling down a hallway in her leg brace, was already thinking of ways to play her disability to best advantage. "I'm going to get a lot of cute guys to help me upstairs," she announced after some consideration.

Shimozono says she has heard all that before and is not bothered by it. "For the first day or two people are going to have a lot of fun," she said. "Then they're going to find out what it's like having a disability."

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