Most people think living in a wheelchair is a terrible thing. They don’t talk about someone being wheelchair mobile, but instead it is ‘wheelchair bound’. People are confined by their wheelchairs, not liberated. I think this should change. This type of language doesn’t acknowledge where these people would be without the use of the wheelchair. Before I got my wheelchair, I had to wait until someone I called for help could come in from the other room to take me to the bathroom, or perhaps wet the bed if no one was around.
Talk about embarrassing. While my wheelchair was a lifesaver, enabling me to get around from place to place somewhat easier, it wasn’t until I got my electric wheelchair that life really opened up for me. Considering what life would be like if you couldn’t walk sometimes helps in understanding just how liberating having a wheelchair available can be, especially when the wheelchair is electric powered and you don’t require the help of someone else to get you around.
First, imagine yourself without the use of your legs. Not only would you need help to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, but there would be numerous activities unavailable to you. You wouldn’t be able to just go over to a friend’s house without first making sure there are no steps and the doors are wider than normal so that you could get in. You can’t just run out to the store in any old car because you have to be sure you can haul your wheelchair along with you.
Activities that most kids do are unavailable, like running track, playing basketball or just play outdoors. This is even harder when you are ‘confined’ to a regular wheelchair that either requires you to have strong arms or to have someone around all the time to push you. People often pity those in wheelchairs for all of these reasons. Jerry Lewis, for example, has been consistently criticized for hawking on the pitiful aspects of children in wheelchairs as a means of raising money for his famous MDA research programs which, of course, continue to put out the message that people in wheelchairs are living less fulfilling lives as a result of their handicap.
While it is true that there are many things I cannot do that my friends can do, it’s also true that with my responsive and automatic wheelchair, I can live a much more complete life without being so dependent on others.
Before the wheelchair, it was difficult for me to do anything. Going to school was a trial and doing anything else usually seemed too big of a hassle to deal with. As a result, I spent a lot of my time at home doing nothing but watching TV. When I got my electric wheelchair, though, it was as if someone had just handed me wings. With automatic lifts on buses and wheelchair access at malls and movie theaters, it was easy to join my friends for an afternoon out without depending on a parent or strong friend to pick me up and push me around.
Finally, I began to understand how someone as brilliant as Stephen Hawking was able to overcome the anger and resentment I felt at my limitations. “One has to get on with life and I haven’t done badly. People won’t have time for you if you are always angry or complaining,” he said. With the electric wheelchair, I felt much more capable of getting on with my own life. Because I could do so much more on my own, it was much easier to ask for help when I needed it without feeling resentful about having to ask.
Taking a look at influential people like Stephen Hawking, who travels the world giving speeches and working as a high level university professor at the same time, also reveals the importance of the automatic wheelchair. Without a wheelchair capable of running on its own power, quadriplegics would be entirely dependent upon others to do anything. With them, they are able to accomplish things that those with no physical limitations have difficulty doing.
Christopher Reeve, for instance, managed to found an entire organization dedicated to help further new research for spinal cord injury victims and bring assistance to the victims themselves. He also managed to star in a film and direct a film as well as write a book and go on speaking tours before he died. He said, “I refuse to allow a disability to determine how I live my life. I don’t mean to be reckless, but setting a goal that seems a bit daunting actually is very helpful toward recovery.” Each of these men were able to accomplish things not because they had the use of their legs, but because they had a degree of mobility and a reason to hope. With this kind of inspiration and the ability to control my own path, it’s easier to feel like I can accomplish something.
Of course, as Reeves said, it’s important not to take things too far or to hope for the impossible dream. Stephen Hawking literally jumped at the chance to go into zero gravity when he left his wheelchair and moved in independently of external devices. I’m sure he’d love the opportunity to walk again and to have full control of his body. But his disability is the result of a degenerative disease that was only ever going to get worse. It would be unproductive for him to dream of accomplishing a marathon on his own two feet someday. On the other hand, Christopher Reeve had been involved in an accident that left him paralyzed.
There was nothing otherwise wrong with his body so, presumably, if his single injury could be repaired or circumvented, he could teach his body to walk again. He was showing some signs of improvement when he learned how to move one of his fingers in 2000, but died in 2004 without ever having walked again. Therefore, it was not such a stretch to think that he might eventually have better control of his body, or portions of it, than he did. As George Carlin points out, “You never see a wheelchair with a roll-bar.” Even with a powered wheelchair, it is still necessary to ask for help sometimes and I do need to realize my limits; however, my life has been radically changed.
Faced with a debilitating disease of his own, cyclist Lance Armstrong says “Winning is about heart, not just legs. It’s got to be in the right place.” To some degree I agree with him. You have to be right inside before you can travel far outside, but at the same time, you have to be able to travel outside if you expect to continue building on the inside. For people who are physically limited, this outer travel is often impossible or so intensely burdensome on their loved ones, already working hard to take care of them, that it is not worth the trouble.
Even with manual wheelchairs, mobility is increased but only to the extent that the individual in the chair is able to manipulate it and typically only for a short while. Powered wheelchairs, on the other hand, provide even quadriplegics with the ability to control some of their own motions and pathways, giving them a degree of independence and a sense that they can make something happen on their own. It may not seem like much to a person who has always had full function of their legs, but for someone ‘confined’ to a wheelchair, this small ability is more than they’ve ever had. For me, it’s represented a transcendence to a new future full of possibilities and hopes.
Armstrong, Lance. ThinkExist. (2007). Web.
Carlin, George. “I’m a Modern Man, a Man for the Millennium.” Grow a Brain. (2006). Web.
Hawking, Stephen. A Complaint Free World. (2007). Web.
Reeve, Christopher. Cited in “Christopher Reeve, ‘Superman’ and Crusader for Stem Cells, Dies.” The New York Times. 2004. The Associated Press. Web.