The Technology Dance – Lesson 8 – “Spinning Wheel Spinning Round”


The summer of my senior year in high school I spent my time working in a day camp program for special needs children. It was my second summer working for the camp. I wore a number of hats in this program including van driver, outdoor skills instructor, and “do whatever is necessary person” like the rest of the small but dedicated staff. Our campers were children ages 6 to 18 and had a wide range of physical and mental disabilities. Growing up with my cousin Don who had severe epilepsy always enabled me to feel comfortable around others who had physical limitations or challenges. For me my challenges were adapting my outdoor skills lessons for persons who couldn’t really hold a hatchet, or dig a fire pit, or use a variety of knots to build a rope ladder. The majority of our campers were in wheelchairs, or used full leg braces and crutches to maneuver from place to place. Current day technology and lightweight materials had not yet impacted the mobility devices that young people with disabilities can use today. My other challenge was changing diapers for those who could not transfer to toilets for their bathroom needs. Fortunately the woman who directed the camp was a wonderful and skilled special education teacher who taught all of us very well and quickly put us at ease with handling the daily challenges we faced. Each staff member had a partner. The boys had a girl partner so that when toileting assistance was needed each could handle persons of their own gender. That year I was assigned to work with a teenager whose family was temporarily in the United States from England while her father did some research work at the Homer Laboratories operated by Lehigh University and Bethlehem Steel. Anne Jane had a wonderful British accent and a fantastic sense of humor. She loved to play practical jokes on the staff (mostly me) and the campers. She had a sparkle in her eyes and smile on her face that brightened even the dreariest tent on a rainy summer day. “Lady Jane” as I called her, was no arrogant aristocrat, she was a down to earth, full of life, fun loving individual who embraced our campers with incredible love for someone who had just turned 16. She could make you laugh with a funny story about growing up in England, or just a silly joke that she had heard. I often had to ask her to repeat the joke since sometimes she used an accent or colloquial expressions that made it difficult to figure out exactly what she was saying, but when I did finally get it I would roar with laughter. That summer, not only did a learn a lot more about England than I did before, but Anne also taught me how to horseback ride, taught me about great Jazz music and musicians (Anne was a jazz consignor}, and she also taught me how to “wheelchair dance”.

Our camp director decided that we would hold a formal dance at the end of the camp program that year since we had a lot more teen campers than we had the previous year. At the beginning of the camp session, I really didn’t think much about that. I figured that most of the kids would just sit around and listen to the music while they watched the staff and volunteers dance. Little did I know that she had decided that we were going to teach the campers how to “wheelchair dance”, and that the dance wasn’t about them being passive at all, it was about them actively enjoying the same music that the staff would be dancing too. I had no idea how a person could dance in a wheelchair but long before the camp director got around to giving all the staff some training, Anne decided to teach me. Since I was one of the van drivers who picked up and delivered campers each day, the only time I had an opportunity to learn this was going to be during the brief rest period we gave the campers each day after their noon meal. It was usually too hot to do too much even under the tents so we took a brief break. It also gave us time to assist students who needed extra time with toileting. The toilet facilities were in the “barn” where all the camp equipment was kept. It really wasn’t a barn, it was a large storage building with tiled floors, several bathrooms, and an open floor that was ideal for holding large meals or indoor activities in the event of really bad weather. Among the stored items in the barn were extra wheelchairs that were used at the hospital facility on whose grounds the camp was conducted. The wheelchairs were used for patient transport and were extras if one of the regular transport chairs was broken.

About three weeks into the camp session, Anne decided it time we began to practice for the dance. I thought she just wanted to go over some of the popular dance steps that teens were doing those days, but when she pulled a couple of wheelchairs out of the storage closet, I realized that wasn’t what she had in mind at all. Anne dusted off the chairs and got in one. She told me to get in the other. At first we just wheeled around the floor getting use the the amount of force needed to push the chair in a specific direction, how to stop the chair, or how to turn it quickly in a new direction. We spent most of the first time just practicing those basics. I was good at moving the chair forwards and backwards, but wasn’t really good at making it turn quickly and a couple of times nearly ended up tipping the chair over. Anne was more poised and graceful with her chair but found the chairs weight slowed her down quite a bit when it came to making quick turns. We practiced only two times that week, and she decided that we should practice at least two to three times a week if we were going to be good enough to dance with the campers. I wasn’t sure that the camp director would let us do that, but Anne went right up to her and told her straight out about her plans, and the camp director gave her the okay, as long as we made sure we attended to all the campers we had specific responsibility for and as long as none of the other staff objected to covering for us during the campers rest period. I felt really guilty about asking for the special considerations and especially asking to have someone else cover for me. I felt like I was shirking my duties, but Anne insisted that we were just preparing ourselves for another duty later on in the camp session. I was also troubled by the fact that once this news got out that other staff would want the same opportunities and then the camp director would have to be making special concessions for them as well. Anne shrugged that off with a wait and see attitude, and to my surprise no one else seemed to be all that interested. Most were happy just to rest during the rest period and let us wear ourselves out with the extra effort if we wanted to.

When Anne engaged in a project, it was all or nothing. While she didn’t bark orders at you, she made it quite clear when she felt you weren’t giving it your best effort, so I really had to push myself to keep up with her passion for perfecting her wheelchair dance style. Once the basics were mastered we moved on to pairs techniques practicing moving our chairs in tandem without colliding, and being able to hold hands periodically as the chairs momentum carried it in a particular direction. She brought in a transistor radio and she’d find a local station playing the latest pop 40 hits so we could actually get a feel for moving the chairs to a specific beat or rhythm. Some styles made it easy just to sort of sway the chair back and forth or from side to side without really having any contact with the other person, both slow dancing meant you actually had to come into contact with the other person and their chair.

With just two weeks to go, Anne totally surprised me one day by getting out of her chair, plopping herself in my lap and instructing me to wheel around the floor to a specific slow dance song. She put her arms around my neck and rested her head on my shoulder as I tried to move her, myself, and the chair around the room. She chided me for blushing and told me to relax and focus on the music and the movement of the chair, not her sitting in my lap. After mumbling a few times that I didn’t understand why she wanted me to do this, she grabbed the rims of the wheelchair, looked directly into my eyes and said, “how do you expect me to dance with some of the other male campers who will ask me to dance if I don’t practice this?” “Okay, okay!,” I said, “I understand, take it easy, I know you want to do this right, just took me by surprise that’s all.” She flashed one of her beautiful smiles, gently brushed my cheek with her long braided pigtails, and put her head back on my shoulder and told me to do it again. She made me do the same while she pushed the chair so I could get the feel for dancing with one of the female campers this way. I had a hard time with that because I really didn’t want to sit down on her lap, and she just called me a “wuss” and grabbed my arms and pulled me down and said not to worry about being too heavy on her, since if one of the girl campers came over and asked me to slow dance with her the last thing she’d be thinking about was I too heavy for her, she just be thinking about how great it would be to have a really cute boy sitting in her lap and being about to wheel him about the room like she owned him. I thought about that for a second or two and then burst out laughing. Anne and I relaxed and finished practicing.

When the afternoon of the dance for the campers finally came. The barn was decorated beautifully, the volunteers had made a great spread of finger foods and punch, the campers were dressed in their Sunday best, and Anne and I were ready. The camp director had gone over techniques with the rest of the staff the week before so they would know what to expect, but Anne and I had actually been practicing throughout the summer, so we were very confident we could handle ourselves that afternoon. When the music started a number of the campers quickly maneuvered their wheelchairs on to the floor and began moving to the music. A few of the campers with braces and crutches also ventured out just to sort of jiggle around to the music as well. Everyone was excited and thrilled just to be having this dance, especially the teen campers. To the campers surprise Anne and I grabbed wheelchairs we had tucked away in the back of the room and head out on to the dance floor ourselves. Wheeling in and out of the other dancers we took turns dancing with them from our chairs. Most of the staff and a lot of the campers laughed at us initially, but once they saw we were pretty good at it, they just relaxed and let us go with the flow. After a short set of fast dance numbers the DJ switched to a slow dance, and Anne and I showed off our slow dance technique from our chairs. A few of the other staff ventured out now to join the other dancers on the floor. When the DJ played another slow dance immediately after the first one Anne and I were surrounded by other campers who wanted to dance with us. We were delighted to dance with them. This went on for about an hour and then my arms were getting tired and so were Anne’s so we took a break and headed for the food and beverage table. We were both just relaxing there for a few moments when two of the older campers came over to the table and looked directly at Anne and I. “Will you dance with us?”, they asked. We hadn’t been paying much attention to the music, but listening now, we realized the DJ was playing another slow dance. “Okay, I responded, give me a second and I’ll get our wheelchairs.” “No, we mean dance with us”, said George, looking intently into Anne’s eyes. “Oh, you mean…”, but before I could finish Virginia already had me by the hand and was pulling me on to the dance floor. I sat down carefully in her lap, swung my legs over the side arm of her wheelchair leaving room for her to grip the wheel, and then she started moving the chair slowly back and forth on the floor. Giving a little harder push allowed the chair’s momentum to glide on its own for a few feet and while the chair moved effortlessly across the floor, Virginia could rest her head on my chest. When the chair would near the end of the glide, she would raise her head, check her direction and push off hard again. For a brief moment, I would look down into her face and see the glow on her cheeks and the gleam in her eye, as she wheeled her cute boy around the room for all the other girls to see. Anne was resting her head on George’s shoulder as I caught a similar gleam in his eyes, as he wheeled his beautiful English maiden around the room for all to see.

Technology Dance Lesson 8 – Tech Points

This little story about another of my dancing experiences attempts to illustrate the core of caring for individuals we encounter who present challenges based on some type of disability or handicap.

In our efforts to use technology on behalf of the students we serve at our school we need to keep in mind that this same technology has been applied and continues to be applied to serving students with special needs for quite some time. While my experience with adapting computer hardware and software for special needs individuals goes back to the early 1970’s and the pioneering days of personal computer systems, I was thrilled to come to St. Theresa School where a rich technology base already existed. I was not only impressed with the depth and extent of the technology resources at this school but also with the application that was taking place in the classroom. My goal today continues to be expanding those resources and extending them to all of the student population we serve.

Since I arrived at this school I have noticed that we have been challenged to serve more students who bring a variety of learning needs and difficulties with them. These challenges are wonderful opportunities for us to apply the technology base we have to these students.

Here are some of the ways we can do that:

  1. All of our computer systems are equipped with software that is specifically designed to assist students with specific difficulties with motor skills delays, vision needs, hearing and reading difficulties. The built-in accessibility tools make this possible.
  1. The Interactive whiteboards and document cameras in our classrooms make it possible to share content and have the students interact with it in ways that they can not do with a textbook, which is ideal for kinesthetic learners and can improve motor coordination and visual tracking for students who have that issue.
  2. The Earobics software and the New Classroom Suite software offer additional support to students with a variety of special learning needs.
  3. The portable computer systems can assist students who have difficulties with handwriting and other writing-related skills, along with providing individualized skills reinforcement in any of our subject areas.
  4. Our WEB cams make it possible for us to record classroom sessions so students can review the content later as needed. In addition, we can use these to stream the content outside of the classroom, between classrooms, or even to other schools. We can also use the recorded materials to post as Pod or Vodcasts to the Internet for the students to review content at home.
  5. All of our equipment can be adapted to use specialized switch input if that were needed.
  6. We use a wide range of collaborative learning tools available on our computer systems and on the Internet that makes it possible for students with good skills to help support and encourage students with weaker skills. This interactive peer support and development helps support the efforts that the faculty makes with these students.

While our physical facilities are not well suited for physically challenged students we can use our technology resources to reach a wide variety of students with other learning needs.

More important than our rich technology resources are the skills and caring of the faculty and staff at this school. Like my friend Anne, success at wheelchair dancing was really about caring about the other person, not about technique or even the tools we used.

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