Things My Wheelchair Has Taught Me About Life
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.
Do you or have you ever used a wheelchair?
…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!