I've lived with a disability for more than 3 decades. My wheelchair has given me a unique perspective that I wouldn’t trade for the world.
For many children or adults who are new to disability, the thought of having to use a wheelchair can come with so many negative connotations. Just look at the words and phrases we use to describe it: “bound,” “confined,” “tied to,” “have to use,” etc. While old-fashioned, these words and phrases unfortunately still permeate our everyday language and the way we think about disability.
As someone who has lived the past three or so decades with a disability, my wheelchair has given me a unique perspective that I wouldn’t trade for the world. I got my first wheelchair at age five, as I began kindergarten. A tiny red chair with a green fuzzy upholstered seat and long handlebars allowed me to not only be able to push myself and get around at school, but it also allowed my friends, teachers, and parents to push me where I needed to go.
Since then I have had several different manual chairs and even a power wheelchair that I used to get around campus during my college days. At times, my wheelchair has allowed me to see the not-so-nice side of life, but it has also opened up a world of opportunities that would not have been possible without it. Below are some of the most important things my wheelchair has taught me about life.
There are Some Really Great People Out There
My chair has been one of the greatest conversation starters. If you use a chair, you’re going to stick out in a crowd. With so many people looking, I try to present myself with a smile which has seemed to work well thus far in allowing people to feel comfortable approaching and striking up a conversation.
For many summers in college I worked at a camp teaching Spanish. No matter our ability, everyone was on an equal playing field. My chair allowed me to approach kids, teachers, counselors, and make lifelong friends. One of my favorite memories is of the counselors taking the “reigns” of my handlebars and joining in on the dances and activities. This memory is always a great reminder that there are really great people out there. Your chair will not hold you back from building positive relationships with people who matter.
Apart from building strong friendships, my wheelchair led me to meet my husband, also a wheelchair user. Our chairs were the common thread that brought us together and allowed our relationship to develop into common interests, activities, hobbies, and more that we now share together. Without my wheels, I probably would not have met my spouse.
…And Some Not so Great Ones
While my wheels opened up doors to positive relationships, lifelong friends, my family, my husband and other amazing people I would not have met without them, my chair is also a constant reminder that there are some not so great people out there.
When you sit in a wheelchair, you will quickly notice that people will judge you. People will stare. People will say ignorant things. People will say some not-so-nice things. People will say you can’t do it. People will tell you no. People will ask questions. Lots of them.
In the past, I felt as though I was responsible for answering every ignorant question, dispelling every stereotype, educating every curious child. A wheelchair will quickly teach you who is worth your time and energy.
There will be people who say you can’t do things. There will be people who put barriers in your way. There will be people who are not willing to work with you, who discriminate, who are ignorant. While we have come a long way since the Americans with Disabilities Act in the 1990s, these people are a good reminder that we still have work to do. A wheelchair gives you the platform to be an advocate not only for yourself but for creating a more equal playing field for everyone else.
That Life can be Hard
I am thankful that I have had the gift of mobility since I was a very small child. Growing up, my wheelchair became a part of me and something I often didn’t think twice about. It came with me to school, on the bus, in the car, on vacation, around the house, to the doctor’s office. While it has always felt like a natural extension of myself, having to haul a wheelchair around can sometimes make life hard.
There were times when school trips weren’t accessible, I had to miss recess, and when I wasn’t able to participate in gym class. As an adult, I still worry about how I am going to get from point A to B in a rainstorm, what to do if my car breaks down, how to shovel my car out of a snowbank, socializing with people at an event venue that isn’t accessible, and dealing with stares and mean spirited comments.
Life can be hard. But life can be hard for everyone. Life can also be really, really great.
…And Really Great
My wheelchair has opened up many doors and opportunities I would not have otherwise been privy to. For example, I was accepted into a women’s leadership program because of my passion for disability advocacy after graduating college. When I applied to teach English abroad, I was placed in a school with children with disabilities, many of whom also used wheelchairs. It was a privilege to be able to be a positive role model for them and learn life lessons from such small people who were triumphing over their own challenges at such a young age.
While I may not have been able to participate in all school events, it forced me to take the plunge and try other things like music and speech which helped me get into college and develop lifelong interpersonal skills that I still use as a professional today.
The saying really is true that when one door closes, another opens. Focusing on the negative will only blindside you into seeing the things you cannot do instead of looking for the opportunities that you can.
How to be Creative
Creativity is one of the most valuable skills for professionals working in the Communications field. It is a skill I am able to list on my resume today, mostly in part due to my experience with my wheelchair. When you spend most of your day and interactions with others sitting down, you are forced to become really creative.
Can’t get up that flight of stairs to have a drink with your friends? You quickly figure out how to speak up, make a phone call, or ask for help. Wondering how you will be able to reach that glass on the top shelf? The ability to spot a friendly face in the crowd who looks willing to help or using that ruler nearby to help maneuver it down are just a couple of examples of creative thinking and problem solving skills that many employers value in the workplace.
How to Plan Ahead
Using a wheelchair requires a lot of pre-planning before leaving the house. And patience. Lots of patience. You’re not going to go anywhere as quickly as everyone else, so leaving early is an essential part of the daily routine. You have to plan extra time for transferring from your chair to the chair and back out again, time to find an accessible entrance to where you are going, time to find a handicapped parking space, and the list goes on.
Thanks to my wheelchair I usually plan extra time ahead so I’m typically the earliest person in the room. Punctuality – another resume boasting trait for wheelchair users.
How to Read People
When you use a wheelchair, you become very aware of your surroundings and the people around you. You learn to watch for cracks in the sidewalk that could potentially end in a bad situation. You become vigilant of large dogs who have easy access to lick your face. You are keenly aware of every curb cut in your neighborhood. You can spot the widest path, hallway, or space in a room a mile away.
Not only do you develop attention to detail of your environment, but also of the people around you. Approaching someone when you are much lower than their eye level can be challenging, but it also gives you a great opportunity to witness other’s reactions. People who use wheelchairs have seen it all. The uncomfortable cringe. The look of surprise. Not knowing how to react. We’ve also seen people who are warm, welcoming, positive, and caring. In fact, we probably experience the gamut of emotions much more than people who just blend in with the crowd, creating a lot of opportunities to know how to interact with different personalities and situations.
Tactics to Read Body Language
How to Ask for Help
Knowing how to read people can also come in handy for this life lesson: learning how to ask for help. As an adult, it has become very apparent that a lot of adults are very uncomfortable asking for help. Somehow asking for help has become equated to ignorance or incompetence. When you use a wheelchair, however, you quickly learn that asking for help is a life skill and necessity for every day survival.
Some tips for asking for help:
- Smile - Most people find a friendly, smiling face is hard to refuse.
- Do what you can - Trying to do what you can demonstrates resolve. Many people are willing to lend a hand to those who are independently-minded because after all, we all need help at one time or another.
- Help Others - Many people love helping others when we are willing to help them.
- Be straightforward - Starting with “would you mind” or “would you have a moment to” are great ways to politely request a moment of someone’s time. Being direct and polite will help others understand how to help you.
- Don’t get discouraged - If someone declines your request for assistance, don’t let it get you down. There are a lot of good people out there. Don’t let one bad apple spoil your interactions with the rest.
To not Take Independence for Granted
Learning to ask for help has also taught me another life lesson: how to not take my independence for granted. At times when I am injured, sick, or after surgeries as a kid, I wasn’t able to do much for myself. I had to rely on my parents to help me get dressed and even go to the bathroom. My chair was always a great reminder of the independence it allowed me to have. The ability to transfer into my chair and go outside with my mom was such a blessing.
It also reminds me as an adult that disability can strike any of us at any time. None of us will be as independent in our old age as we are when we are younger. Everyone needs to ask for help at some point or another. It’s a great life lesson to enjoy the little things in life and not take your independence for granted, no matter what the extent of your ability.
How to Drive
“Slow down there, speed racer,” tops my list of the most annoying things you hear when you use a wheelchair. But truth be told, my chair taught me how to be a safe, confident driver. Learning how to stop quickly, move with the flow of traffic, turn corners, and watch out for others are essential when maneuvering a wheelchair. The transition from my chair to my first vehicle was a very natural transition.
To Appreciate Life
The best life lesson that my wheelchair has taught me is to appreciate life! My chair has traveled the world with me, introduced me to lifelong friends, allowed me to spend time with my family, carried me onto the reception floor at my wedding celebration, and taken me to work every day. I don’t know where I would be without it and it is a good reminder to appreciate the little things in life.
We never know what life will bring. A wheelchair does not “bind” you to anything unless you let your own limitations bind your experiences. Instead, those wheels provide the opportunity to participate in life, get engaged, and gives the gift of a unique perspective and valuable skills that will take you throughout your life. Life is good! Get out there!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Jacqui from New Zealand on August 05, 2015:
In my profession, I've had the opportunity to see a lot of different types of wheelchairs, with add ons, personalised to the needs of the particular people needing them. So, now, when I'm out and about I find myself checking out other people's chairs! Which, whilst I know I'm just curious about what's different about that chair or this chair, I am always worried I'll get caught staring! I do hope if I ever do the person will understand I'm fascinated with the chair, not staring cause they happen to be in one!
Working with the guys I used to work with, with all their different styles of chair etc, I gained a great respect for the amount of planning an outing can take, and how ANNOYING it is when someone without a disability has taken a reserved car-park - It annoys and frustrates me soo much it doesn't even cross my mind when I'm looking for a park to use one of the reserved ones (half the time I'd forget I had the work van, with one of the guys and was able to actually use it anyway!).
Thank you for sharing this hub - I really enjoyed it!
AB on August 03, 2015:
I was recently diagnosed with a genetic disorder that is alreadt causing me significant mobility difficulties. I am a part time crutch user, and my doctor says that I will probably be in a chair in the next 5-10 years. I have been struggling with that, but with posts like this, I am starting to accept my fate, whether it involves mobility aids or not. Thanks for the encouragement. :)
WheelerWife (author) from Minnesota on August 03, 2015:
Thank you all for your wonderful comments! I love reading your stories and feedback and happy to know you enjoyed the hub!
Sherry Hewins from Sierra Foothills, CA on August 03, 2015:
For people who need them, wheelchairs are certainly a blessing. I used one part-time, and briefly after I broke my foot. It was a welcome break from the crutches, which I found quite cumbersome. It gave me a new perspective on how people look at you. Just not being on eye-level with people changes their perception of you. I wish people would understand, when you see some one in a wheelchair, it is not their identity, it is just their mode of transportation.
Vagabond Laborer on August 03, 2015:
What a great idea for a hub!
Tony Fischer from Southeastern Michigan on August 03, 2015:
Great perspective here. I voted up and shared.
Andrew Spacey from Sheffield, UK on August 03, 2015:
I spent a year caring for a wheelchair user, a young man, a truckie, who had spinal injuries following a motorcycle accident. He had a motorised chair and was always showing it off wherever he went because it was customised! He had a big sheepskin on there, leather trim, polished chrome - and any number of badges. I can see it now in his room charging up ready for the morrow's adventures. I was his driver and confidante (he had big blue VW van to taxi round in) and we spent many a mile touring here, there and everywhere. We even went abroad to Germany for a week.
So your article is poignant. It has a strong, positive message. He would have loved it.
Voted up and shared.
Chantelle Porter from Ann Arbor on August 03, 2015:
I have so much respect for you. When my son was little (about 6 ) he broke his leg and was in a hip spika (cast) for 64 long days. he was too heavy to carry so we rented a child's wheelchair to get him out and about. Wow, was that hard. I had no idea or appreciation for just how challenging being in a wheelchair can be.
Honestly, I just thought you sat in a chair instead of walked. What an idiot I was. The chairs are heavy! Just collapsing them , putting them in the trunk, then taking them out of the trunk and putting your child in the chair is a workout. In my ignorance I thought it was be easy to wheel him anywhere until of course I found out our McDonalds was not accessible unless we wanted to enter through the back door next to the dumpsters.
Bravo to you for sharing your story and hopefully making the rest of us more aware of the challenges people face.
RTalloni on August 03, 2015:
Congrats on your Hub of the Day award for this positive and encouraging post. Clearly, you have more freedom in life than many who have no need of a wheelchair and your perspective is something that everyone needs to consider!
Elayne from Rocky Mountains on August 03, 2015:
My 12th granddaughter has a pink wheelchair with lighted wheels. She doesn't let anything stop her. She is very outgoing and makes new friends everywhere she goes. We are lucky to have her in our family. She teaches us so much. She was born with spina bifida. I wrote a hub about her if you want to read it. She took dancing lessons in her wheelchair and has perfect pitch when she sings. She is an inspiration. Thank you for sharing.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on August 03, 2015:
Thanks for sharing your insights from life in a wheelchair. Your article is helpful for those who have as well as those who don't have disabilities, and truly deserve your HOTD award. Congratulations!
Girija Dixit from Bangalore on August 03, 2015:
Wheelchair should not be perceived as a symbol of dis-ability. It is indeed one of a different ability.
Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on August 03, 2015:
This was so beautiful and inspiring. Back when I lived in New Jersey, I was a volunteer camp counselor for disabled kids--hearing impaired, blind, learning disabilities, etc. I feel your pain. Voted up and congrats on HOTD!
Mary Hyatt from Florida on August 03, 2015:
Congrats on your well deserved HOTD! I used to work as a Lab Tech in a hospital, and one of my coworkers depended on a wheelchair. I admired him so much because he chose to work every day instead of going on disability income.
He would park his car and assemble his chair, then go in to work his 8 hr. shift.
I admire people such as yourself who overcome their disabilities and live a full life!
Arun Dev from United Countries of the World on August 03, 2015:
It was a really instructive hub. I ,being, a wheelchair user learned a lot. Thanks for sharing your story! Voted up and shared! Congrats on HOTD!
Ijeoma Peter from Lagos, Nigeria on August 01, 2015:
WheelerWife, thank you for sharing your unique story with us.
peachy from Home Sweet Home on July 06, 2015:
wonderful points, you had voiced your thoughts that many disabled people are afraid to share. Thanks for letting us know.
Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on June 04, 2015:
Excellent points. I've never had to use a wheelchair myself, except for very brief transport to the physical therapy department after my knee replacement surgery, until I regained the strength to walk the halls to that venue...and I had to be pushed along, as those hospital chairs are not self-mobile; they have an anti-roll locking mechanism that can only be deactivated from behind your head, with constant pressure while in motion.
Following the knee surgery, though, I did need to use those electric "mart carts" to navigate the grocery store...and that was a lesson in just how oblivious people are. It seems if you are not at eye level, you are invisible! They would cut in front of me with shopping carts, or walk in front of me, causing me to stop short to avoid hitting them! My husband had to use those things for a while, as well, and he always threatened, "the next person that cuts me off, I'm not stopping--to teach them a lesson!" Those carts will stop very quickly when you let go the lever..but they stop so abruptly that it jars your whole body, and that is not good for someone with the back problems my husband has!
Back in the 1980's and 90's, before I met my current hubby, I had a TV show on cable access..and the fellow who usually was my technical director used a wheelchair. He was amazing! His chair had no arms, canted wheels, and "wheelie bars" on the back, and no push-handles; it was like a racecar version..and could he move and rock and roll with that thing! He even danced with me at one of the station events! He was nearly an acrobat in that chair! ;-)
He was my only experience with someone I knew personally being in a wheelchair, but he was SO independent, strong and capable, that it left me feeling very unsure, with others, whether or not to ask or offer assistance with anything...except maybe holding a door open, which would be the polite thing to do for anyone, disabled or not.
Voted up +++, shared and pinned.
Mary R. Schutter on June 04, 2015:
Viet Doan from Big Island, Hawaii on June 04, 2015:
Eloquent, expressive, honest. One of the best writings I've read in HubPages. Your experience taught me to be more grateful for everything and to enjoy life to the fullest. Thank you for sharing. Aloha!
WheelerWife (author) from Minnesota on June 04, 2015:
Thank you all for your wonderful comments! So glad you all found something to relate to in this hub :)
Diana Grant from United Kingdom on June 04, 2015:
I am slightly disabled and sometimes use a walking stick; on a few occasions at exhibitions, my children have pushed me in a wheelchair to save me getting tired. I recognize so many things you have said, and I must say, I have found people around me to be mostly very kind and helpful - like volunteering to reach for things on top shelves of shops, giving up their seats on transport and giving me time to cross the road. I always smile and show my appreciation, partly for myself, and partly because I think that encourages them to be nice to others in future!
Sally Gulbrandsen from Norfolk on June 03, 2015:
Excellent Hub, thanks for sharing your perspective from a wheelchair users point of view. As a carer of a wheelchair user, I found it particularly interesting and helpful. I know that I am always thinking ahead about the pitfalls of the destination we are about to embark on. It can take some careful planning. Some places are still impossible for us to visit as there is quite often no wheelchair access. Some of the smaller shops are impossible to access. I do agree that there are lots of wonderful people out there willing to go out of their way to assist when called upon to do so. It is amazing how much a smiling face can achieve:)
Voted up and useful, thank you.
Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on June 03, 2015:
Awesome hub portraying the challenges and the willpower of a wheelchair person. You have described it so well setting an inspiration to all others. I am very glad at your mental strengths and determination with which you faced all this and stands as an inspirer.
Voted up and awesome. Sharing on G+.
Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on June 03, 2015:
Awesome look at life. In my job as a bus driver I see people 'not as mobile' as most every day, our buses are wheelchair friendly and we often get them on the bus.
Many times the folks in the chair are almost apologetic for being that way (I suppose they're feeling they're holding the bus up, they don't!)
Seeing the way many of them cope with things is awesome. I often joke with them that with reversing skills like they have they should consider a job as a bus driver. That usually brings the biggest smile you'll ever see! And a big thank you from them.
mikeydcarroll67 on June 03, 2015:
Sometimes, it takes a situation or a challenge for us to realize that we are to stay strong. We are not here for entertainment but rather to grow and challenge the world.
WheelerWife (author) from Minnesota on May 31, 2015:
denise.w.anderson - thanks for leaving such an insightful comment! Love your perspective!
Denise W Anderson from Bismarck, North Dakota on May 30, 2015:
It is amazing what a different perspective on life gives us! You have pointed out some great life lessons here. The one that I think is most significant is that we all have difficulties in life. Each person is different and has their story. To look down on another because they happen to be different than we are is a great sign of immaturity. When we look at others with the same respect that we would like to be given, we go far, no matter who we are!
WheelerWife (author) from Minnesota on May 25, 2015:
Hi BarbaraCasey - appreciate your comment! Great to hear that your son's therapy got him back to health! Also, yes, thanks to the hard work of many advocates for many years we will keep going in the right direction :)
BarbaraCasey on May 25, 2015:
Wow. Excellent advice. My adult son was in a wheelchair for almost a year after his brain injury. Intensive therapy got him standing and walking again, but that year made me appreciate the disability advocates who fought for hard-won rights.