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Faculty & Staff Spotlights

New desk helps lecturer maintain his balance while teaching

Oct. 30, 2014

To the casual eye, nothing may look different in Woodburn Hall’s Room 100. To professor Trent Applegate, though, there’s a significant addition: a new desk.

Trent Applegate at his new desk

Trent Applegate lectures at his new desk. | Photo By Chasity Mottinger, IU Communications

But this desk serves a separate purpose from thousands of others across campus. It was meticulously designed by a Physical Plant employee to assist Applegate, who suffers from ataxia, a neurological disorder that affects his speech, balance and coordination.

For more than 15 years, Applegate has taught first aid and emergency care in Woodburn’s room 100, first as an assistant instructor and now as a senior lecturer in the Department of Applied Health Science through the School of Public Health.

He’s passionate about his work and tries to keep his students interested too, but his condition sometimes makes it difficult to address his class.

“I can stand, but as soon as I take a step, I’ll fall,” Applegate said. He uses a wheelchair but -- with as many as 280 students in each class -- likes to stand in front of the lecture hall so everyone can see him. He used to brace himself against an overhead projector but needed something that would allow him to transition from sitting to standing whenever he liked.

With guidance from Applegate, Physical Plant carpenter Wes Jones designed a custom desk with several rails that will ease Applegate’s transition from sitting to standing and vice versa.

It was a somewhat peculiar project, Jones said, because he wasn’t given strict specifications to adhere to.

New desk

The desk was crafted by Physical Plant carpenter Wes Jones. | Photo By Chasity Mottinger, IU Communications

“They had an idea of what they wanted to do but didn’t know how to make it work,” Jones said. “We had to come up with something stout and heavy since he’s going to be using this to pull himself up.”

To match the aesthetic of room 100, which has two historical murals painted by Thomas Hart Benton from the 1930s, Jones included square pegs to connect the joints and a dark stain finish on a red oak frame with walnut inlays.

Applegate anticipates that the desk will give him more freedom during class -- both with his mobility and his lectures.

“There are always spur-of-the-moment changes in class, so I can spare some time by doing things myself instead of having my (assistant) instructors helping me,” Applegate said. “I’ll also be able to use my hands to demonstrate when I go through an analogy.”

If the desk serves its purpose for Applegate, Jones said he’s hopeful that the Physical Plant could help on more of these projects. “If it works for him, then something similar might work for others, too.”

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