Research study provides a different perspective on life with disabilities

Tiffany Eickhoff has known about “the look” her entire life. She remembers it when she attended Oakville High School in St. Louis. She said she saw it as an SIUE student.

SIUE Applied Communication professor Duff Wrobbel, left, celebrates graduation with his former student, Tiffany Eickhoff. Eickhoff graduated from SIUE with a degree in Speech Communication in May 2014. Last spring, Wrobbel and Eickhoff collaborated on a study that examined the different looks onlookers give a student with disabilities. (Photo courtesy of Duff Wrobbel)

Eickhoff was born with cerebral palsy and must use a motorized chair or walking canes to help her get around. She also was recently diagnosed with scoliosis, or curvature of the spine. She said her different ways of transporting herself have caught the attention of people passing by. Sometimes, Eickhoff said she gets a negative reaction, that she and Applied Communication professor Duff Wrobbel call “the look.”

“Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been getting the stares pretty much wherever I went,” Eickhoff said. “So we wanted to test it out on campus and see if there is truth to that? Is there truth to what I am seeing or is it all in my head?”

Eickhoff wanted to learn more about the different looks she received while traveling around SIUE’s campus. Last spring, the SIUE graduate collaborated with Wrobbel in the latest in a series of studies conducted by the Applied Communications professor that observed some of the challenges SIUE students with disabilities face each day. The study, which Wrobbel and Eickhoff named “The look” observed and documented the different reactions of students and other people passing by Eickhoff as she navigated in her motorized wheelchair. Wrobbel said he was also familiar with the different looks given to people with disabilities. His daughter, Holly, has Down syndrome.

“The first question that we really had was just is there really something there,” Wrobbel said. “Because if you think people are staring at you it might be because people really are staring at you. But it might be because you are overly sensitive… there are a number of different possibilities. We were trying to figure out if there was any statistical evidence to support the idea that there was something different about the kind of look.”

To complete the study, Wrobbel attached a small, GoPro camera to her wheelchair near her right shoulder. Wrobbel said in Illinois it is legal to film other people in public places where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. After a series of tests, Wrobbel determined that it was best for Eickhoff to film between 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. for the greatest visibility. Over the course of several weeks, Eickhoff compiled enough footage for film analysis. Another student, mass communications major Ashley Seering, helped edit the footage. The images captured were startling, Eickhoff said.

“I couldn’t believe the kind of looks that I had gotten and some of the people’s reactions,” said Eickhoff, who graduated with a degree in Speech Communications in May 2014. “It was shocking. I realized, ‘Wow I’m not making this up.’”

Afterward the research team freeze framed reactions of different onlookers and presented them to a group of students. Wrobbel then asked the students to determine, based on the facial expressions, if the people in the images were looking at a disabled person or a non-disabled person. The results surprised Wrobbel. From the data he collected Wrobbel said he was able to determine that “the look” does exist.

“They were clearly able to recognize the look given to people with disabilities more regularly than they should have been,” Wrobbel said. “It wasn’t a huge statistical difference but it was a legitimate difference.”

Wrobbel submitted his findings to the Review of Disability Studies and hopes to get it published. Eickhoff presented the study as her senior project and has also spoke in several SIUE classes on disabilities awareness. Eickhoff, who is currently unemployed, hopes to become a motivational speaker, author or work in the communications field.

Wrobbel co-authored another study with fellow faculty member Sarah Vanslette and Eickhoff, called “Enacted Assessment of Disability Support: A “Lived” Method for Assessing Student Life,” that was recently published by the Review of Disability Studies, which is based at the University of Hawaii.

During that study, the research team asked several non-disabled students and Eickhoff to film themselves during similar activities on campus, such as going to class and traveling to different buildings.  Then the team collected the footage and spliced the footage of the non-disabled students with Eickhoff’s footage, matched by the different activities. Then the footage was re-edited and displayed in a split-screen format, so the viewer can compare the difference.

“We had two people doing the exact same things on campus: Tiffany and a non-disabled person,” Wrobbel said. “We would say to each one start from this door, go to this classroom, take a seat and we’d tape them. Then we would start the tapes side by side on the screen at exactly the same time and you could literally watch in real time how much harder it was for Tiffany than the other person. You could see how much time it took. You could see how many obstacles there were that go in the way. It was very eye-opening.”

Wrobbel said that he plans to create another study following The Look that will help determine and categorize what type of looks were given during this study.

Meanwhile, Eickhoff said she doesn’t let negative glances affect her. She has been dealing with obstacles throughout her life. As an SIUE student, she had to have a note-taker help her with course material and she had to take tests at the SIUE Disabilities Center. She also earned her degree while battling a learning disorder, taking three classes at a time. In August 2013 she won the National Miss Amazing pageant, which recognizes women with disabilities in her age group.

The 26-year-old is currently working on getting her driving permit so that she learn to drive with a special, hand controlled vehicle. She also working on her physical fitness to increase her strength. She said she has lost 53 pounds since June.

“I try not to limit myself,” Eickhoff said. “My philosophy is that I can do anything that anybody else can do, I just may have to do it in a different way.”

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