I’ve mentioned a few times that one’s disability is more than just the physical and/or mental limitations that it causes; it becomes part of who you are as a person. What I don’t feel I’ve explained adequately, though, is the degree to which a specific wheelchair becomes part of your body.
Imagine, for a moment, that you begin wearing a new pair of shoes and they haven’t been broken in yet. Feels weird, right? Getting a new wheelchair is much the same thing. Personally, I’ve only ever used manual chairs so I don’t know much about electric wheelchairs but, I imagine, the experience is largely similar.
Just like the new pair of shoes, you would ‘break in a new wheelchair’ by learning not only the chair’s idiosyncrasies, but also how your body plays into them. Ultimately, you are less of a ‘passenger’ in the chair and more of a partner with it.
It’s this partnership that a wheelchair-user develops with their chair that so often others don’t understand. Yes, chairs look similar and function in similar ways but be in one for any length of time and you’ll notice that it has its own, distinct personality. It is this unique ‘personality’ that makes moving into a chair that isn’t yours not only obvious but often unpleasant and potentially risky.
While not the only culprits, I wish airports would acknowledge this fact. So often when you’d have a connecting flight they’d expect you to use one of the airports wheelchairs as they’d be moving your chair to your connection. I’d always insist on my chair.
The chair that I’m currently in (which I promise to write about soon) I’ve had for about a year now and a similar one for three years before that, I’ve learnt its likes, dislikes, and its limits. Just as I know my chair’s limits, it is configured to work with mine. Buying a new one, then, often leads to several fittings, adjustments, and changes so as to make the chair conform to exactly how my body behaves and, considering I have a minor problem with my spine, this is quite important to me. Moving into a chair that is not mine, even for a short period, can often lead to back pain and other problems in addition to a general feeling of being a ‘fish out of water.’
This ‘partnership’ one develops with their wheelchair can get to the point that you’d be able to identify the exact surface you’re on or the slightest change in gradient without seeing where you are – much like you would if you were non-disabled. There have been instances where I’d slip or, in extreme cases, fall out of the chair by hitting something as small as a pebble no bigger than a wedding ring, if not smaller.
In “Terminologies & Apologies” earlier this year, I outlined the disability terminology I preferred and why. Not too long after that, Hunter Kelch from Come Roll With Me pointed out that something I’d forgotten was the difference between someone who is ‘wheelchair-bound’ versus a ‘wheelchair-user.’ Considering that a person would develop this kind of symbiotic relationship with the chair, to suggest that someone is ‘wheelchair-bound’ implies that the chair is some kind of restrictive prison-like device in which you are carried about. Since the reality is that the chair becomes almost as much a part of you as your foot and both you and the chair respond to each other’s behaviour, it would be far more accurate to suggest that you use the chair like you would any other body part the term ‘wheelchair-user’ is not only more politically correct but is more reflective of the relationship someone has with the chair.