Karen Johnsen sets the record straight about...


Karen Johnsen sets the record straight about wheelchair etiquette

Physically challenged. Handicapped. Disabled. Unabled. Chair-bound. Special.


What do we call people in wheelchairs?

"Whatever you address us as, we are just us," says Karen Johnsen, 37, from Bowie.

Ms. Johnsen, recently named the 1993 Ms. Wheelchair Maryland, has a form of muscular dystrophy with a very long name. She spoke last month before a group of disabled students at Dundalk Community College.

The subject was etiquette.

Do abled people try to help disabled people if, for instance, they drop something? Should an abled person ever touch a disabled person's wheelchair?

Common courtesy trumps all. Ask if we need help, and if we say no, don't be offended, Ms. Johnsen says.

Some people, she explains, will offer to help even if it's unnecessary.

"I let them because I know it makes them feel better," she says.

As for touching the wheelchair, it depends on the driver.

Ms. Johnsen was diagnosed at age 12 with a form of muscular dystrophy called facioscapulohumeral, which got progressively worse. Her muscles wasted away.

"I remember when I could play the guitar or walk up the stairs. I remember when I could dance with my husband," she says.

Her mother, Doris Olds-Eck of Annapolis, always told her things could be worse.

The refrain proved prophetic. Ms. Johnsen was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy.

"That was the scariest thing in my life. The cancer really put my muscular dystrophy in perspective: "Hey, this isn't so bad." To education reformer Dr. Robert E. Slavin, the idea behind his latest project is simple: "Never give up on kids. Schools have to be relentless to see that kids succeed."

Dr. Slavin, 43, of Roland Park, director of the elementary program of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students, has been pretty relentless himself in trying to change American education.

"Roots and Wings" is designed to restructure the traditional elementary school. It's being implemented this year in four schools in St. Mary's County in Southern Maryland.

In the 1970s, he was a leading guru of cooperative learning (kids working in small groups helping each other), now widely used in classrooms; in the 1980s, he helped develop "Success for All," a reading program that began in a Baltimore elementary school and has spread to 19 states. Now, "Roots and Wings" builds on the other two.

Dr. Slavin is director of the national pilot project funded by the non-profit New American Schools Development Corp. His wife, Nancy A. Madden, is co-director and his chief collaborator.

"The main element of 'Roots' is to make sure every child has a grounding of basic skills," he says. "It's a matter of giving kids success no matter what it takes -- tutoring one on one, new shoes, giving parents ways to work with children at home.

"Wings says basics are not enough. Kids should use the basic skills to solve problems, to explore the world and imagine themselves in other roles and in different times of history."

A Montgomery County native, Dr. Slavin came to Hopkins in 1973 to get his Ph.D. His education research is known worldwide through his 11 books, including the just-published "Preventing Early School Failure."

Wayne Hardin

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