The Wheelchair: Part 1

Dec 18, 2012
Tagged with: The Wheelchair: Part 1

Ah, the wheelchair. To most, the word denotes struggle, incapability, and sadness. Basically, once you sit down and submit to “the chair” all of the life and fun will be sucked from your body. I’ve been a chair user for 23 years and strangely enough, I live a wonderfully vibrant life. So why is society so scared of the wheelchair? Let’s conduct a little experiment.

  1. Go to Google and search the word “wheelchair”.
  2. Click on images.

What is the first image you see?

Mine was this:


In fact, the majority of the images were similar to, if not just like this one. This experiment reveals problem number one. The most common image of the wheelchair we see in society is a design that dates back to the 1950s. This design, while groundbreaking for my great grandparents, is heavy, bulky, and lacks both form and function. Even worse, this chair is normally the first model a newly injured individual will receive and take home from the hospital.

My first chair was a heavy, pediatric folding-frame chair that could comfortably seat two. My mother took rolled up beach towels and placed them around my hips and under my feet to secure me in place. Luckily, I was three and unaware of my body image and the perceptions society had of my new mobility device. Had I been 14 and about to return to junior high, I’m sure my attitude would have been very different.

After a few months I ditched my retro hospital chair and was fitted for my first “lightweight” custom chair. It was purple, and it was a big upgrade. While I was growing accustomed to my chair, I was also introduced to wheelchair sports. At my first wheelchair sports camp I met tons of kids just like me that used chairs, and I quickly realized that many of the chairs were cooler than mine. As I grew and matured I began to see my chair as an extension of my body. No, I was not bound to the chair, but it did influence my body image. So I ripped off the handle bars, threw away my anti-tippers, cut out the seat belt and purchased some low profile tires from a bike shop. With the disposal of each part of my chair I felt a little cooler, a little more confidant, and a lot more mobile.

By the time I reached college I finally had a chair that truly fit. It was a small, rigid frame titanium chair that could slide through inaccessible doors and down the aisle of first class. More importantly it never overpowered my physical body, and after a short conversation, it could fade away completely.

Now, quite often when I am at the grocery store someone will come up to me a say, “That’s a really cool wheelchair. I’ve never seen one like that before.”

“Thank you,” I reply.  I take pride in the fact that a stranger sees coolness in my chair rather than sadness.

If I’m really lucky they respond, “And those shoes are really cute too.”

Mission accomplished.

Check back soon for part 2: How do I get a chair like that?






Author: Mary Allison Cook