This is a question some of us ask ourselves when we meet people in wheelchairs in everyday life, perhaps imagining what it would be like to be in their position. I remember my husband once telling me that as part of his training with Mencap, he spent three hours in a wheelchair to gain perspective of being a wheelchair user. It was a lot harder than he had imagined.
I, on the other hand, gained first-hand experience for a little longer – when I broke my back. I was resistant at first, possibly because I was so determined to walk again, and felt being put in a wheelchair was a step backwards! My brain couldn’t accept the possibility that my future was going to be in a wheelchair – but this soon changed.
My First Experience
When I was hoisted into my wheelchair for the first time, I was overwhelmed and shocked with how painful it was! My body felt crushed and feeble, with a great deal of muscle wastage that had developed after 6 weeks of flat bed rest; it was as much as I could do to sit up straight and remain in the chair for an hour. This is not what I had expected!
Trying to wheel myself and lean either side was painful, and my body screamed at me that it all felt wrong. It took great willpower to persist, and within a few days, I started to get the hang of things, wheeling myself up and down the ward.
Now, I consider myself a good driver and I pick up things quickly, but learning to drive this damn thing was a bit of a headache. Firstly, I had to lock foot plates, release brakes and check everything was positioned correctly (I half expected to give a hand signal and check my rear view mirror before pulling away!).
Then, I realised that the size of the wheels made them a little harder to steer than I had thought. You have to pull one wheel back and push the other forward to turn left or right. I was totally un-coordinated and my hands became sore very quickly!
It wasn’t long before I experienced a taste of everyday dilemmas. I was told to do my own washing and so piled my items onto my lap, wheeling off to the laundry room quite happily. However, by the time I had reversed and manoeuvred myself to the right angle to reach the washing powder, and then re-positioned myself to open the machine door – chucking in the washing and powder – I began to see how everyday chores could be quite difficult!
The key to survival is learning to adapt, and within a few weeks, I was joining in with wheelchair skill classes, playing basketball and even table tennis. I was nervous to do wheelies as I feared landing on my back, despite being told there was a bar to stop this happening!
The ultimate test which showed my acceptance of the wheelchair, was when I jumped to its defence. A family member showed their horror when I decided to go to a social event on day-release from hospital. I was horrified when she said that I would be ‘drawing attention to myself.’ At that point, I was faced with the possibility of the wheelchair being a permanent fixture in my life, so I was tempted to say, “Well, best you don’t come and visit me if I’m such an embarrassment.”
As you can see, I looked pretty good and the day was a great success!
Now, I know how lucky I was to regain the ability to walk at a level where I no longer needed a wheelchair, but I am so grateful to have had a taste of wheelchair life for a few months. It has given me an insight and a humble gratefulness in life.
Here are the things I discovered in my time in a wheelchair:
Things I Noticed
- You are faced with a sea of people’s belly buttons.
- Some people talk loudly and slowly as if you have damaged your brain or are hard of hearing now you are in a chair!
- At social gatherings you get neck ache looking up to people.
- You need a heck of a lot of upper body strength to push yourself any great distances.
- Slopes are scary!
- People pushing you can be equally scary!
- People stand too close to the curb when pushing, putting your feet in harm’s way!
- You get a lot of sympathetic looks, but I equally find this using a walking stick!
- They are a nightmare to put up and down and fit in the boot of a car.
- There are advantages – such as prime viewing position in a theatre.
- Not searching for somewhere to sit in a busy pub!
Now, I’m a very open and a ‘wear your heart on your sleeve’ kinda girl, as those who have read my book ‘Catch Me If I Fall’ will know. I wrote a chapter called ‘Wheels of Fire’ where I talk about the journey to accepting the wheelchair. This was only a small part of the overall acceptance I had to find. However, I feel it shouldn’t be overlooked, even though I am now a ‘walker’ and my recovery has exceeded expectations.
If you would like to read more about my journey to recovery you can purchase my book here:
I believe reducing ‘stigma’ associated with being in a wheelchair should be a two-way thing, just like mental health stigma. Chair users need to be open and discuss what it is like, expressing what is okay and not okay for them – but also finding patience and helping to educate others. We can only reduce stigma by talking to people and explaining things.
Able-bodied people also need to be aware – don’t stare, and don’t make assumptions!
If you feel offended by people asking why you are in a chair, tell them ‘I would prefer not to talk about it’ rather than jump to the conclusion that they are rude. I think to expect people to ignore the fact someone is in a wheelchair is a little unrealistic, it would be like wearing a stunning, oversized hat at a table in a restaurant and expecting someone not to notice and say “wow, I love that hat you’re wearing.”
I agree, that just like mental health conditions, people should ‘see the person, not the chair,’ but on a first meeting, when people want to get to know you, it’s realistic for them to show an interest. I still have people 3 years down the road asking why I need a stick. I’m more than happy to explain that a spinal cord injury is an ongoing condition and tell them how I love my stick! I’m pretty sure I would have the same attitude if I were still to be in a wheelchair.