Wheels @ W&M – Weeks 6&7

Hello all! Sorry this post is a bit late.   Since weeks 6&7 of research were very similar to weeks 3-5, I’ve decided to write about some of my personal experiences in using the wheelchair.  Friends I saw over the summer all wanted to know what it was like to navigate in the chair, and whether Williamsburg seems different to me while I’m using the chair.  I did some research to see what other kinds of questions people often have about wheelchair-users, and here’s my personal experience mixed with some tips from trusty Google.

First things first: how fast does my chair go?

My chair travels at a speed of 4 mph.   Sometimes this seems very fast, and sometimes extremely slow.  It actually equates to a pretty fast walk – comfortable for my 6’2’’ dad to keep up with, but a little too fast for my girlfriends who are more like 5’4’’.   I can dial the speed down for times when I need to be moving more slowly, like when I’m indoors and there are tight corners, or when I’m with a group of slow-moving people.  It can go up and down hills, and has locking brakes that keep me from rolling if I need to stop on an incline.

How do you talk to someone who is using a wheelchair?   

Short answer: just talk to her like she is a person!

Smile, make eye-contact, offer to shake hands.  Not every person is able to do these things, but I’d be surprised if any wheelchair-user would be upset with you for offering them.  If there is a chair nearby and you are going to be chatting for more than a moment, it would also be nice to take a seat.   My neck got very tired from looking up at people all day long – I’m sure I’m not the only one!  Don’t feel the need to squat down to try to “be on the same level,” though; that felt kind of patronizing.  I also had a few experiences where people spoke to me as though I was a very small child or couldn’t understand simple directions.  I might have assumed that was normal for that particular person, but it came from people I’d encountered around town before, and they hadn’t acted that way when I wasn’t using the chair.  This was very unsettling for me, to see such a marked difference in people’s behavior towards me, so that’s definitely something to avoid.  (I do have to say this never happened on campus – Go Tribe!)

What surprised you about using the wheelchair? 

Hm.  I hadn’t anticipated how interested dogs would be in the chair.  If you know W&M, you know that our campus is full of dogs during the school year.  Well, it’s worse in the summer, and every one of those dogs had some sort of reaction to the wheelchair. They wanted to sniff it, jump on it, or bark at it.  I started carrying dog treats with me during the second week!   The best dog of the summer though, was the one who was so enamored of the chair he tried to “mark” it.  Delightful.  His owner was really embarrassed, but we had a good laugh.

What was the hardest part about using the wheelchair?

I think if I were a W&M student using this chair all the time, I would be most frustrated by the lack of good information about how to get around campus and in and out of buildings.   Much of what’s online is just wrong, and that makes planning anything – from how long it will take you to get to a particular building, to whether you’ll be able to get to a particular room for a class or club meeting – really difficult.

The hardest part for me was taking the campus tour.  I remember my own tour of campus pre-freshman year, how the tour guide talked about all of our awesome campus traditions and how important they are to students here.  I remember walking through Barrett Hall, where I got to see a room and “real college students,” and where I lived as a freshman.

Then I took the “no-steps tour” offered by Admissions.

Good parts of the tour:

–      All the same information offered on standard tour

–      Great tour guide!

–      Heard about favorite traditions: walking through Wren building for Convocation, King & Queens’ Ball, walking over the Crim Dell Bridge with graduating class, and bread ends!

Bad parts of the tour:

–      Accessible sidewalk blocked by maintenance van

–      Only other ‘accessible’ way was gravel

–      Power chair handles gravel, but is extremely noisy, causing tour group not to be able to hear guide and drawing uncomfortable attention to me.

–      Taken to Monroe Hall to see dorm room, but wheelchair ramp blocked off in small construction zone (not staircase, just ramp).  Tour guide had been given multiple keys for one lift in building, and no instructions on lift operation.  I was unable to access the building at all, and had to wait outside.


While the bad parts of the tour would have been frustrating for a potential student, the hardest part for me was to hear about the awesome campus traditions here and know that many of them are inaccessible to wheelchair-users.  The Bridge is reached by staircases; you can’t really even get close enough for a good photo in a wheelchair.  The Wren building has a great new wheelchair lift, which makes the Great Hall accessible (yay for participating in the Honor Code pledge ceremony!), and the Chapel partially accessible, but doesn’t really help with Convocation because the lift’s on only one side and the point of that tradition is to go through.   We’re certainly moving in the right direction, but it was emotionally hard for me to hear about some of my favorite parts of campus life here and know that not everyone would be able to experience them.

Last question: were there any good parts about your time using the wheelchair?

I think the best part of being able to use the chair for the summer was the way it allowed me to start conversations with so many people around campus.  I was able to talk to people in almost every building, and in departments I’d never even seen before, and everyone was supportive and encouraging of the project.  It was great to have conversations that got people thinking, when I’d want to do something and then have the chair there to show why a particular setup wasn’t going to work.  They’d start to come up with their own solutions, and it was really fun to work collaboratively to figure out how to make something work.  I was impressed by how willing people were to engage with me and make themselves available as resources – all I had to do was ask!


  1. This was really interesting! I’m glad to hear that people on campus have been so ready to help and collaborate with you. But it definitely does seem unfair that not everyone can participate in our beloved traditions!

  2. anna ritsema says:

    Hannah I was sooooo impressed with this. You have a real gift for writing:) Congrats on a job well done!!! Love,

  3. bstanford says:

    Hey, I really enjoyed reading about your project! It’s definitely something that could positively impact W&M – I have always doubted the accessibility of campus since freshman year when I started tripping over bricks. You may have mentioned this in an earlier blog post that I missed, but do you know if any of your findings will be considered by W&M in an effort to help make the college more handicap accessible? I remember reading about how the lifts in Small, for example, were not readily usable. It’d be awesome if your project made campus and the W&M experience more inclusive!

  4. heritsema says:

    Hi there! Thanks for reading. I have a problem with the bricks on campus, too.
    You asked if the school will consider my research – I certainly hope they will! I’m in contact with people in the Disability Services Office, and will provide them with my findings when my final paper is written. I have been told that sometimes the school gets money to make accessibility improvements, but if they do not use it in a certain period of time, the money goes away. Some of the things I’ve found around campus will go on a list to be fixed when there’s money available, while others, like having lift keys in the right places and signs with phone numbers to call so you can get into buildings, will hopefully be fixed right away.