Most of my students are elderly . They are between the age of 85 and 95 years old and are considered disabled. This is important because it qualifies them for services from Foothill College’s Disability Resource Center. These services include being able to register for classes in the adaptive learning community-based program along with other accommodations.
Does being very old age automatically qualify you as disabled? In theory, you can be 90 years old and not qualify but the reality is that almost 100% do qualify. Not because they are elderly but because of a wide range of health concerns they struggle with – such as limited mobility, hearing loss, loss of sight and cognitive issues.
The majority of my students have not been disabled for most of their lives. This is new territory for them and they are still learning to navigate the landscape. For some, it means they have to give up driving – which represents an enormous loss of independence. They have to learn to use alternative transportation – to depend on family and friends.
I have one student, who got polio in her early 30’s and has been disabled ever since. For her, having services such as transportation is liberating. All her life she has had to manage without being able to drive and finds it a relief to have easier access to transportation. Unlike her peers who may be feeling angry and frustrated by their dependence on rides from others – she is relieved that she is not alone in her struggle.
As an instructor, I am struck by the wide range of disabilities in my student population. There are the physical limitations – problems with shoulders, necks, hips, knees. In my exercise class I tell them “Pay attention to your body. Don’t push into the pain. If it hurts – Stop!” A colleague of mine disagrees with that approach. He acts more like a trainer. He encourages them to ‘keep at it – don’t quit’. This is important too -this kind of encouragement and at times, when I see someone just sit there doing nothing, I think about his approach. I know they can do more but they are telling me they can’t because of the pain. It is a delicate line – between pushing oneself and hurting oneself and ultimately it must be up to each individual to decide.
There are also barriers created by hearing losses. I think this is my biggest challenge as an instructor. One student, in my creative writing class has a system purchased by her son that includes a microphone, earphones and an amplifier. This works – but only for her – and also because it is a small class and we can pass the microphone around. The other students with hearing losses are resentful that she has a system that is not available to them.
For me, it is more difficult to meet the needs of a deaf student than for a blind student. A blind student can follow my lectures and instructions in the exercise portion of the class. One of my students has both a profound hearing loss and can barely see – I’m not sure how much she gets out of the class but there she is – week after week – doing her best to participate. She is 94 years old.
The fact that Foothill provides these classes out in the community is the reason these students can attend. They could never manage to get to the campus and would not have these opportunities without this program. Research has shown that people live longer and have a better quality of life if they stay engaged in the world. It is not just for them that we need to provide these services – it is for all of us. We have as much to learn from them as they do from us.