By Gabby Guerard
The bitter January air quickly ushered students around the Springfield College campus, as the second semester officially began. While students poured into classrooms with red noses and rosy cheeks, those who entered Room 105 in Locklin stumbled upon more than just a blast of warm air.
One by one students slowed their pace as they entered the room, which was large in size yet lifeless in color, encompassed by blank, white walls. After scouring which plastic gray chair to claim as their own, students glanced to the front of the room and did a double-take.
“I was concerned and curious for initial reactions,” recalled freshman Shawn Harnish. Although Harnish quietly pondered, others were taken more abruptly by what stood before them.
“I was shocked,” said freshman Olivia Longo. “I initially thought that it was a bit crazy… and it might be uncomfortable or awkward.”
Once the seats were filled with students and the air was filled with discomfort, Dr. Decoteau finally addressed what everyone was fixated on: the wheelchair.
A ruby red frame snakes up from each of the four wheels, forming the structure to support a black cushioned seat. The motorized chair is thoroughly equipped, including a footrest, a head rest, and two armrests, as well as a black remote control and joystick to control transportation from one place to the next.
Unlike his students, Decoteau had a much more limited array of seats to choose from. His wheelchair was the only option.
A new semester always brings lots of uncertainty for students: “Who is in my classes?” “How hard are the exams going to be?” “Did I end up picking good teachers?” For the students taking “RHDS 230- Psychology of Disability and Illness” with Decoteau, one more question arose: “What is class going to be like with a disabled professor?”
As the course unfolded, students discovered that their professor would create a unique learning experience, challenging any of their presumptions about disabilities. His ultimate goal: enable students to see people with disabilities as people, rather than just as a disability. Decoteau knows the difference well, because when he began teaching at Springfield in 1989, his spinal cord was fully intact.
Even before the accident, the N.H. native had always been passionate about those with disabilities. Decoteau worked as a psychiatric aide and senior counselor at the Concord State Hospital, was the director of rehab services for special education students at Stevens High School in Claremont, and then became the state supervisor of the disadvantaged before coming to teach at Springfield.
Although well-versed in the subject, Decoteau never anticipated that he too would live a disabled lifestyle, until one load of laundry put his life at risk.
On Friday, Oct. 12, 2012, Decoteau left Springfield to travel home to Enfield, Conn. Since it was the end of the week, Friday meant laundry day. Grabbing a large bag of his own laundry, as well as a bag of towels, Decoteau headed for the basement. However, the staircase required a 90-degree turn after the first two steps, which is where Decoteau’s entire world changed forever.
“I had both bags and I went to turn,” recalled Decoteau. “I missed the first stair and I went down 20 [stairs] head over heels.”
Decoteau landed on his back, severing his spinal cord at the C6 and C7 vertebrae.
“Even though I was flat, my feet were floating up, and when I reached back [around my head] I was bleeding out,” explained Decoteau.
With his wife still at work and his three children already moved out of the house, Decoteau was helpless.
“I couldn’t reach my phone and I could only move my hands, but I was paralyzed,” said Decoteau. “At that point I knew enough to know that I was in deep trouble, and there’s no way anyone could hear me.”
Once Decoteau’s wife came home from work, she was able to call 9-1-1 in time to save his life, enabling emergency personnel to stabilize and transport him to the hospital. While Decoteau managed to survive numerous surgical procedures, the recovery process was a difficult one, mentally and physically. He recalls, “I even begged my wife, ‘Just stop the machine [respirator], I want to die.’”
After coming to terms with his disability and redefining himself as a quadriplegic, someone affected by paralysis in all four limbs, Decoteau returned to Springfield to continue teaching students about the psychology of disabilities two years ago. In order to do so, Decoteau had to restructure the class to accommodate his disability, but students have found that these changes have only improved the learning environment.
Given that Decoteau cannot easily move throughout the classroom, students are randomly organized into five different groups. Each group contains a facilitator, who volunteers to take on the additional responsibility of leading group discussions, distributing papers or materials, and taking attendance daily.
“I am glad I can help Dr. D. in such a simple way to enhance our learning experience,” said sophomore Eliza Poutenis, the facilitator from group two. Poutenis also adds that the groups are much more than just a practical solution for his teaching limitations; they are a tool to increase learning, explaining that, “We have gotten to know our group members and feel comfortable having open and honest discussions to further our understanding on certain topics.”
Decoteau is able to use his personal experiences from before and after becoming disabled to add insight to class discussions.
“Instead of just learning about what a person with a disability might go through, we experience first-handedly what a person with a disability goes through, thanks to Dr. D. sharing his story with us,” said freshman Gabriella Roberts.
Students feel his unique first-hand perspective is valuable and essential to the course.
“I think it would have seemed hypocritical or fake if the activities we’ve done or the lessons we’ve learned came from a teacher without a disability,” described freshman Haley Burgmyer. “Dr. D. is the pivotal part of class that makes it so the lessons are genuine and empathetic.”
Decoteau’s experience adds a strong sense of authenticity to the classroom, creating a one-of-a-kind learning atmosphere.
“I definitely feel like this class is more meaningful and genuine than any other class that I am in,” explained freshman Rosalie Bowman. “I feel like I have a place in his classroom, and that I am not just another name on a roster.”
This concept is the backbone of Decoteau’s class: the perspective of seeing someone as an individual, rather than as a specific disability or stereotype.
“I think the authenticity is by the structure of the class, teaching it as someone who’s experienced it, but even more giving [students] a perspective in order to see it,” stated Decoteau.
Through the course of several activities, students have been able to understand what it is like to live with a disability, some of which have caused students to completely change their perspective, further their understanding of it, or expose just how little they actually knew to begin with.
“Before [taking this class], when I thought of disabilities, I thought of a handicapped parking spot,” reflected freshman Katie Demus. “It sounds bad and even selfish, but I did not realize the struggles people with disabilities have to face each day.”
One activity that showed the day to day challenges of living with a disability was a “Wheelchair Scavenger Hunt,” requiring students to complete certain tasks while using a wheelchair. The experience proved to be eye opening.
“I see cracks all over the sidewalk and now all I think about is how that can be dangerous for someone who is in a wheelchair. I notice that not all doors have handicap buttons making it difficult for those with disabilities to open the door,” said freshman Alli Souza. “All of these things that I think about now, I never even thought about before taking the course with Dr. D.”
Even for those who already thought that they understood the perspective of living with a disability, Decoteau’s activity furthered everyone’s comprehension.
“The scavenger hunt was by far the best lesson,” said freshman Courtney MacDonald. “I understand what it means to have a disability. I watch two autistic children every weekend- I get it. But for some reason, literally being in their shoes (the wheelchair) I, for the first time, truly understood.”
Although Decoteau has undergone a traumatic life-changing accident losing the ability to control all four limbs, he uses his disability to positively change the lives of students at Springfield. His personal experiences help cultivate the perspectives of students, teaching material that is far more valuable than a grade; his lessons apply to everyday life.
“I would not only recommend, but encourage other students to take this course,” voiced sophomore Gavin Jepson. “The atmosphere of the class is one that you will not find elsewhere on campus. The professor makes a profound impact on his students’ lives.”