As a student with cerebral palsy, I learn in the community. COVID-19 turned my world into a screen.

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author Julia Fieldhammer at her computer

Julia Fieldhammer controlling the instant replay camera during a 2019 women's basketball game at Robert Morris University. Since the pandemic, her community-based learning has shifted mostly online. (Photo courtesy of Julia Fieldhammer)

Compelling personal stories
told by the people living them.

When people think of school, they think of sitting in a classroom all day learning subjects like math and social studies. When I think of school, I think of going out into the community in my wheelchair with my voice device and working to be more independent in my everyday life. 

I have cerebral palsy, a disorder caused by a lack of oxygen when I was born. As a student at City Connections, I’ve learned to be more independent through real-world experiences, like navigating the city and working with professional social media teams. 

Because of pandemic restrictions, school for me has drastically changed. So much of what we did has not been possible, and it was a struggle early on to even have class. Despite the challenges, I’ve also seen unexpected benefits, especially as so many groups have used virtual technology, enabling me to participate in events that wouldn’t have been accessible before. 

author Julia Fieldhammer in a green and white shirt on a track.

Julia Fieldhammer cheering at a Pine-Richland High School football game in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Julia Fieldhammer)

City Connections is a Pittsburgh Public Schools community-based program for 18- to 21-year-olds with disabilities. There are six sites around the city with about 10 students each. On a daily basis, we work on skills such as cooking, cleaning and getting around town — all things that may come naturally for many people, but not so much for someone with a disability that impacts their ability to move and speak. 

Before the pandemic, each student would do something different every day. Some of us would go out to work, some would volunteer and some would get experiences such as going to the bank or grocery shopping. 

I had a very busy but steady schedule. Once a week, my physical therapist would take me out to practice getting around in my wheelchair. I really enjoyed those days because I got to learn how to take more responsibility for getting around as a wheelchair user. 

Before City Connections, I would just rely on my family when we were out to tell me where to go, and I didn’t take the initiative to figure it out myself. When I got to City Connections in 2018, we were expected to take more responsibility for ourselves. 

My physical therapist started to take me on public transportation like the Port Authority’s T and bus system. At first, it was a little nerve-racking. When I got on the bus, I would use my voice device to ask the driver to strap my wheelchair down. Some drivers were really nice and helped me. Others would just ignore me. That didn’t make me feel good, like my safety wasn’t important. Most of the tie downs for the wheelchair spot were old, and sometimes they didn’t even work, so I just had to wing it. When I made it to my destination, I would use my voice device to tell the driver which stop I wanted. 

Riding the T is challenging because I had to look at the map to figure out the best route, and I would sometimes get confused and take the elevator — going all the way to the street instead of the train. And when the train came, I’d have to be ready because the doors would open super quick, and I didn’t want to crash into a seat or passenger. 

Two days a week, I went to Robert Morris University, one day to an art studio, and one day I would have occupational therapy and speech. I was helping out in Robert Morris’s social media department from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. 

I’d ride a school bus home, but I’d get there using ACCESS, a paid service for people with disabilities. Although it helped me get around, it could be a big pain sometimes. To make an appointment, my nurse would have to call the day before, sometimes waiting on hold for a long time. Riding ACCESS means being used to waiting, which is really frustrating. I might be picked up at 9:30 in the morning, and our destination would be 20 minutes away, but we wouldn’t get there until 11 because the van had to pick up other riders. I felt cheated when this happened because I was losing a good portion of my day, especially when I had limited time at my destination. 

But when COVID happened, everything stopped. 

During quarantine, all of the students shifted to independent work at home. No one knew how to do a community-based program online, and some students lacked computers. We were supposed to email the teacher and check in with her each day. I missed talking to people face to face. It wasn’t until school started virtually in the fall — when Pittsburgh Public Schools finally had enough computers for all students — that our teachers began doing live online instruction. 

Our teachers were able to give instruction from 9 to 11:30 a.m. on the weekdays. Even though we were together again, the program looked very different than before. All our community activities were thrown out the window. 

As of April 8, I’m now doing hybrid learning, with two days a week in person and three days virtual. Currently, our activities mainly consist of math, reading, current events and some daily living skills. Our teacher is working with us on functional math, like practicing how to read a clock and count money. We watch a program called CNN Student News, a national broadcast geared toward young adults. I enjoy it because I like to know what’s going on in the world, and we usually have a discussion afterward. 

Sometimes my teacher will find virtual tours for us to take, like to the Sarris Candy Factory or Heinz Field. Other times, we will go over different recipes for meals we can make — every time we learn a new recipe, we all get hungry. 

We also work on social skills. We watch videos about how to better interact with people and how to be more aware of how people are feeling, even if they don’t come right out and say it. 

My school uses Microsoft Teams as our learning platform. I have to use two iPads — one that’s my own, and one borrowed from the school. This is because I can’t use my communication app and Teams on the same device. The rest of the class uses laptops, and as an iPad user, I sometimes won’t have access to the chat feature, or I won’t be able to see when my teacher shares her screen. When this happens, my teacher will email me the material for the day so I can pull it up on my school iPad. 

There are times I get really frustrated and want things to go back to normal. I really enjoyed going to school every day and going out to see new people and places. I feel like this program is a way for me to get my own experiences. When that got taken away, I felt like I lost my freedom. 

Julia Fieldhammer with her dog during a 2017 senior year photo shoot. (Photo courtesy of Julia Fieldhammer)

Despite all the challenges COVID has created, the situation has also brought some good things into my life. Before the pandemic, our whole class was rarely together. Now, since we can’t go out into the community, our class has been together more often, and that has given us a chance to get to know each other better. 

I’ve also gotten opportunities I don’t think I would have gotten in normal times. For instance, I got to interview a reporter for PublicSource about being a professional writer, which led to me getting to write this article. I was so excited because I love to write, and I thought this would give me a chance to see what it’s like to be a professional writer. My teachers have been really good at thinking outside of the box. 

I also got the chance to virtually shadow with Dynavox, a company that makes voice devices for people with speech impairments. Because I’m interested in social media, I’ve been working with their team to learn how to create successful posts for their company’s social media on Facebook and Instagram. Dynavox even featured a video I made for Cerebral Palsy Awareness month on their social media pages. My video got more than 37,000 views.

The pandemic has made so many things difficult. But one nice thing about so many groups using virtual technology is that I don’t have to worry about getting someone to drive me to meetings. It’s nice for me not to have to rely on other people to attend my activities. I can go to multiple events a day. It’s no problem if I have an art class from 4 to 6 in the afternoon and then a Pittverse writers meeting at 6. I feel like I can be more involved because it’s simple to sign off and sign on to something else. I think I’ve gotten so used to working this way that when things go back to normal, I’ll have to learn to adjust. 

On the bright side, when we do go back to in-person events, I’ve been able to get both vaccine doses, so I will feel more comfortable going out in public. 

This year definitely wasn’t what I had pictured it to be. But when I think about it for what it is, I’ve been able to see some benefits. Since returning to in-person school two days a week, I feel like I’ve gotten back some of the freedom that I lost during quarantine. The City Connections program has helped me in so many ways. It helped me become more confident and independent, and it helped me create a path for what comes next after I graduate in June. It makes me happy to see how far I’ve come while being in this program and excited to see what the future holds for me.

Julia Fieldhammer is a student at City Connections and a writer. If you want to send a message to Julia, email firstperson@publicsource.org.

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