"Suffering the Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune"

Whew, we have been a little busy the last couple weeks – doing science!

Our homeschool co-op decided to have a science fair this spring and Em was determined to participate. She came up with a great project and had some great plans. Unfortunately, like most teens, she underestimated how long it would take to complete the project, so we were rushing to finish it up at the last minute. Unfortunately, UNLIKE most teens, she really struggled with fatigue and pain, and leaving things to the last minute can mean that things may not get done – once the tank is empty, there is no quick and easy way to fill it back up.

By the end of the week, she was absolutely exhausted, headachy, and stressed, which always results in worsening GI symptoms (a bad combo for her). But, she kept pushing and was able to present her project on Saturday, as well as perform with her guitar class at our Open House.  She is paying for it now, but it was a great experience that was worth it.

At some point this past week, amidst the rushing and requisite motherly chiding about time management, I realized that 2 short years ago, Em was essentially bed ridden and unable to function. There is no way she could have done the science fair or performed – as I recall, 2 years ago, she went to Open House for a little while in her wheelchair and headed home early. It was a miserable, scary time in which we were still desperately trying to cling to some sort of normalcy.

A year ago, she was better but was in a new round of headaches and was dealing with the side effects of the Diamox. We were struggling to get the dose right and get her CO2 levels in a good place. She was definitely better, but it was unnerving and frustrating to have the relapse. She went to Open House last year and it was a minor ordeal like everything was for her at the time.

So, this was quite an accomplishment and, time management issues aside, I was just thrilled that she is now able to participate more in her own life. It is sometimes hard to remember how far she has come.

Her science fair project also is a reminder of how far she has come. It was a classic with a very personal twist: Is Smiling Contagious…Even if you are in a wheelchair?  Being in a wheelchair has been a blessing and a curse for her and she is understandably sensitive about it. She hasn’t been in her wheelchair at all for several months and hasn’t even really used the scooter we got in the fall and she has been pretty darn happy about that! For her to include the wheelchair in a project was not a casual decision – it was a decision born of a willingness to take a painful situation and learn from it.

Her hypothesis was that smiling would be contagious, but that people would smile more when she was walking and least when she was in her wheelchair. After a week of wandering around Walmart, trying to make eye contact with people (which would label them as a ‘subject’ and which sounds much, MUCH easier than it actually was) she finally had to admit that people actually smile and are friendly when she is in her wheelchair…IF she is smiling herself.

If she made eye contact and didn’t smile, people were less likely to smile, although they still smiled more than people did when she was walking and not smiling.


  • 36% of subjects smiled when facing Em walking, making eye contact and NOT smiling
  • 64% of subjects smiled when facing Em walking, making eye contact and smiling
  • 44% of subjects smiled when facing Em in a wheelchair, making eye contact and NOT smiling
  • 95% of subjects smiled when facing Em in a wheelchair, making eye contact and smiling

This may not be groundbreaking science worthy of a peer reviewed journal or even a highly competitive Jr. High science fair, but it was shocking for Em, who has long held the opinion that people treat you like crap when you are in a wheelchair. Perhaps they do treat you differently, but, they are more likely to be polite and smile when faced with a smiling face. In non-scientific terms, you get more flies with honey than with vinegar!

She did a great job, learned a lot and got a blue ribbon. It was a great experience and I am so thankful that she is well enough to have had a chance to join in – she has missed out on so much over the last few years.

Em's  project board

Em’s project board



Comments on: "Better Living Through Science!" (8)

  1. Great project!!!

  2. Tracy Butenhoff said:

    Hi Beth! Glad things are going better – thanks for sharing – loved the project. Tracy B. (Mer’s mom)

    • Thanks – it was fun! Em is doing well right now and we are just going to enjoy the improvements we see. Still concerned about a handful of things, but we will take any improvement we can get! (How are you and Mer doing?)

  3. …that’s actually really cool. I’d bet part of it is the eye contact and the fact that she’s a young person. I mean, I tend to smile when I see anyone younger than me, or at nearly anyone who makes eye contact while smiling. But the thought process probably involves something along the lines of “this is someone in a difficult position, a young person, and they’re still wandering around Walmart smiling. this makes me happy.”

    Regardless of why, that’s pretty neat. I know I tend to avoid interacting with people when I’m using my cane, because I’m only 21 and don’t even look that, and I generally expect strange or uncomfortable looks…but every time I’ve had to use it, I’ve just had people ask if I’m ok (“I took a chronic joint condition to the knee”), maybe I’m misjudging them.

    • Yup, that is my thought too… I think people see her and, instead of thinking badly of her like she assumes, they think ‘wow, I don’t know why she is in that wheelchair, but she is obviously a trooper…’ From my very non scientific observations, I think people may be curious to see a young person in a wheelchair, but go out of their way to be nice and gentle when she is in the chair – based on the fact that they were slightly more likely to do so even when she didn’t smile at them.

      She definitely ascribes (or ascribed) a meaning to people’s eye contact with her when she was in her wheelchair before this experiment – and it was never good! (They are staring at me!) But, I think it may be unfair and she learned some important things through this. One of the lines of her written report is ‘Smiling is contagious, but when you are in a wheelchair, it is easy to not let it be.’ I think that sums it up! I mean, people are still clearly clueless about wheelchair and other mobility aids use, being disabled and invisible illness.

      BUT, if she is nice, then they may be nice in return and then there is a chance to educate. I guess that is a start – definitely better than scowling at people because she thinks they are staring at her!

  4. Jeshyr said:

    That’s really interesting!! My own tendancy is to always smile at people when I’m out in my wheelchair – I go out so frequently that just being well enough for wheelchairing is very happy-making for me. So my own observation that people smile at me a lot probably reflects the fact that I’m smiling at *them* a lot, if what happens here matches your research…


    ^– that’s me smiling at you.

    • I think your observations are very correct! Smiling is contagious!

      If I saw you out and about (assuming I flew half way around the world), I would definitely smile back! In fact, during the experiment, I got ‘in trouble’ several times for accidentally smiling at her subjects before she could. It was hard not to smile at people!

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