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Rolling to an understanding

Pi Kappa Phi fraternity members hope to help the disabled on the UT campus by spending a week in wheelchairs.

[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Dan Fales, right, carefully handles his lunch tray with help from Pi Kappa Phi fraternity brother Sam Dorrance, center, on Wednesday in the school cafeteria.

By LINDA GIBSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2001


TAMPA -- By his third day in a wheelchair, 20-year-old University of Tampa sophomore James Caparosa had developed ripe blisters in the middle of each thumb. His shoulders ached.

Fortunately for Caparosa, he can walk away from the wheelchair any time. But he and 11 fraternity brothers from Pi Kappa Phi vowed to wheel rather than walk from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. all week while on campus. The stunt is part of their annual campaign to raise money for Push America, the national fraternity's program to aid the handicapped.

Caparosa and his fraternity brothers can ditch the chairs as of 10 p.m. today. They'll walk away with a new appreciation for their functioning legs.

"I'll never take what I have for granted again," Caparosa said. "I suggest every person sit in a wheelchair for half an hour. It took 10 minutes for me to feel blessed for the abilities I have."

The brothers plan to write a report about their experiences negotiating the campus on four wheels. It will go to UT President Ronald Vaughn and Dean of Students Bob Ruday.

Among the problems they'll read about are these:

Students in wheelchairs face a Catch-22 getting into the Rathskellar, the pub downstairs in Plant Hall. They can use an elevator to get downstairs but first must get the key to operate the elevator. Guess where the key is? Downstairs in the Rathskellar.

Plant Hall has only one wheelchair ramp, tucked in back of the building on the southern end. That makes it a long trip for those using wheelchairs whose destination might be on the other end of the building.

The new College of Business building has good ramps, accessible elevators and four spaces in each classroom for students in wheelchairs but not a single door to the building that opens easily for someone who must hold it open with one hand and move a wheelchair with the other.

The Student Union has no elevator or ramp to the second floor. One of the participants in the wheelchair event, a resident assistant, must be carried upstairs to his office.

Elevators in the residence halls shut down during fires or drills. "I know the school makes an effort to put the disabled on the first floor, but what if you're visiting someone on the ninth floor?" asked Caparosa.

Caparosa has enlisted his girlfriend, 19-year-old Nina Pompi, to help him. Even with help, however, he has to cope with curbside ramps that are too steep and distances to class that take more time to traverse. It takes him an extra 15-20 minutes to get to his usual destinations.

"It's such an inconvenience to get around," he said.

Caparosa hopes that for next year's event, students outside the fraternity and some faculty members will join the Pi Kappa Phi brothers for a week in a wheelchair.

"The best way to bring about change is for people to experience it," he said. "I'll be much more patient, understanding and sympathetic to people in wheelchairs."

At UT, Push America is to sponsor an afternoon of wheelchair basketball, wheelchair volleyball and other events from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at McNiff Center. The goal is to raise $5,000 for projects that will help handicapped people.

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