Wheelchair challenge creates a sense of empathy for Fort Worth Country Day students

Two wheelchairs roll down the halls of Fort Worth Country Day, but not for the same reason.

One chair is for Strother Norman, a fifth grader who was paralyzed at the age of five, while the other chair allows his classmates and faculty to get a sense of what it’s like getting around in a wheelchair.

“I wanted to let others know what it felt like,” Strother said.

He called it “The Strother Challenge.” He said he got the idea for the challenge when he outgrew his old wheelchair and decided to donate the old one to his school.

Here’s how the challenge works:

The accident

Five years ago, Strother was riding in the car with his grandfather coming home from his ranch when their vehicle flipped in a one-car accident, Strother’s mother, Blythe Norman, said.

“The last thing I remember was sitting in my car seat looking out the window,” Strother said. “Then the accident happened. I woke up, my legs were in the air and I was on the other side of the car.”

Quickly after the accident, a helicopter transported him to Cook Children’s Medical Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, where he reunited with his mother.

“I was so happy he survived,” Norman said. “We didn’t think he would make it for awhile because he was very weak.”

At the intensive care unit, doctors determined the accident caused Strother to have a spinal cord injury at his T3 and L3 vertebrae. Additionally, he had no spinal cord function below the T2 vertebrae, which meant he was paralyzed from the chest down.

When Norman first received the news about her son, she said she was in complete shock.

“I had a hard time visualizing what life would be like in a wheelchair for Strother, so I had to do a lot of research and reach out to a lot of people,” Norman said.

For the next 44 days, Strother stayed in ICU where multiple doctors performed four surgeries throughout his stay. After the four surgeries, Strother and his mother traveled to The Shriners Hospital for Children in Chicago for rehabilitation.

During August and September of 2012, he worked on strengthening his muscles and learning how to maneuver in a wheelchair.

“One exercise I did was sitting on a bubble thing and reaching for a person’s hands over and over,” Strother said.

After two months of rehabilitation, Strother said he returned to Fort Worth Country Day to join his kindergarten class. Fours years later, Strother began “The Strother Challenge.”

What The Strother Challenge participants thought

Today, several students and faculty members have completed “The Strother Challenge.”

After participants finish their school day in the wheelchair, they are required to journal about their experience.

The fifth Strother Challenge participant was Strother’s friend Hardie Tucker.

“We’ve known each other for six years and Strother powers through everything,” Tucker said. “I wanted to sign up for the challenge because I wanted to know what it felt like to be Strother. I didn’t want to take my legs for granted.”

During his day in the wheelchair, Tucker said he realized how hard the challenge was when he maneuvered between classes.

“You’re about to go down the stairs and then you realize you are in the wheelchair and have to turn around to find a ramp or an elevator,” he said. “It’s frustrating at first, but once you get the ropes of it it’s fun.”

Mason Harper, another challenge participant, said, “I was jealous of everyone trying the wheelchair, so I signed up.”

Before the challenge, Strother taught Harper how to turn in the chair, how to go up hills and ask for help whenever he needed it, Harper said.

“It’s frustrating at first because you want to turn one way, but it goes the other way,” he said.

During Harper’s day in the wheelchair, he said navigating around the classroom was more difficult than he imagined.

“One of my teachers had the desks really close, so my classmates had to move the desks around for me to get to my seat,” he said. “I didn’t realize how narrow things could be in the chair.”

Norman said she had the opportunity to read other journal entries from other participants, both students and faculty members.

“A lot of kids said they had shoulder pain, backpacks were in the way and that lunch was trickier to get around,” she said.

On the other hand, Norman said she noticed the adults found the challenge more emotional than physical because they struggled to accomplish things themselves and had to ask for help.

“Asking for help is something Strother deals with every day,” she said. “But the reality is that he’s strong and he’s accomplished so much on his own already.”

Even though Strother will be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, Norman said her job as his mother is to not help him, but teach him to be independent.

“Strother is going to go to college, get a degree, start his own family and have a career,” she said. “He’s outgrowing the memories of the accident, which is good because he’s surrounded by a supportive community. Strother is resilient”.

“I’m grateful not to be in this, but I’m glad Strother doesn’t let his spinal cord injury affect his life,” Harper said. “He just acts and goes along with his regular day and I’m pretty happy for him about that.”