First off, I have to say that I have not always used a wheelchair and I am probably not everyone’s idea of a “typical” wheelchair user. I even have to admit that many of the things that I’ve included in this blog post had never even crossed my mind before I succumbed to using a wheelchair myself.
Some background: I am tall (for a woman) at 6ft 1” / 1.85m and therefore was always involved in lots of sports – netball, basketball, football, volleyball. Now this may sound incidental, but it does have a great impact on my experience of being in a wheelchair. First and most obvious, I have always been used to being ‘noticed’ by everyone as I was normally “head and shoulders” above most of my colleagues. This never particularly bothered me, because I was naturally fairly extrovert and gregarious. Now, even in my ‘extra high’ wheelchair (designed specifically to accommodate my long legs) I am at most 4ft high and it really is a completely different world down here! I am much more accessible for children/toddlers to see face-to-face (which has opened up many more opportunities for ‘chats’, smiles etc.), but it’s also meant that I’m far more likely to be overlooked/ignored by other adults and I mean that literally! So yes, for me personally the biggest change has been “emotional” and therefore largely invisible. (I now hope you understand the relevance of the cartoon at the beginning of this post / it’s not just for fun – I AM A PERSON).
Now that’s the emotional baggage out of the way – let’s get on with the practicalities of life in a wheelchair.
We all realise the need for ramps, lifts, dropped curbs etc. and it’s simple isn’t it. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as you think.
a) Ramps - a ramp of greater than about 25° is really difficult to push a wheelchair up (particularly when you are as tall and therefore heavy as I am.
b) Lifts - when your wheelchair has been specially adapted to fit a tall frame like mine, it doesn’t necessarily fit easily into a standard / small lift. Remember, I’m tall and as such have legs and feet that stick out horizontally, even when my knees are bent at 90° or more, and as any engineer will tell you, the turning circle for something tall, long and narrow is not good.
c) Dropped curbs - I have been amazed at how many dropped curbs do not drop to the ground, but stop a couple of centimetres short. Even that tiny step can be enough to overturn my wheelchair, which I’ve experienced several times! Also, when you’re out and about have a look at how many door thresholds have at least a ‘small’ step. Even more bizarrely, some dropped curbs on one side of a road do not have an equivalent dropped curb on the opposite side of the road.
2. SITTING COMFORTABLY:
Even when I stay in my wheelchair during a meeting, I like to get my feet off the foot pedals and onto the floor. Of course, this means that once the meeting is concluded, I need assistance lifting my feet back onto the foot pedals. As it happens, lifting my feet does not cause me any pain, but I do need to relax in order for my legs to bend sufficiently. It’s OK to talk to me and ask me what help I require.
Most people realise that manoeuvring a wheelchair is easier when the doorway is wider. However, many forget that the actual door is usually quite heavy and may even have a sprung hinge, making it difficult to open, and often it smashes closed against the wheelchair and / or person sitting therein.
These obstacles can be fairly simple to overcome, but they do mean that I, as a wheelchair user, can’t really just pop out somewhere without planning and checking that the destination will be accessible. If I appear unwilling to go somewhere on the spur of the moment, please don’t think that I am just being difficult, I’m simply trying to avoid the embarrassment caused by my not being able to get into a particular venue.
When I say that these obstacles can be fairly simple to overcome, I speak from experience because my previous employer provided me with an office on the ground floor, which was accessible via a ramp leading to automatically opening, sliding doors. My office was even opposite a toilet adapted for the ‘disabled’, where the door could be opened and closed using a push button.
All it takes is a little thought and discussion with the person using a wheelchair and usually both sides are able to come to a suitable accommodation. JUST DISCUSS IT WITH THEM.
Guest blogger for IP Inclusive