Letting Go Of The Wheelchair

I wish I had the universal answer, the one that applies to all – but, I don’t. Yet, it doesn’t keep me from knowing at least one answer.

For me, acceptance of my wheelchair as a “wheelchair” was always a given, where I always viewed it as a tool of liberation. Nevertheless, I’ve also understood how others can view the physicality of their wheelchair as an object of limitation and resentment in their lives – especially those newly injured – where the literal seat, wheels, and frame are a visual reality of unwanted change and anguish.

Fortunately, most people with disabilities evolve into an understanding and acceptance that a wheelchair is ultimately a tool of mobility – it helps us live more active, independent, satisfying lives, regardless of disability. Yet, some people never grow to such emotional acceptance, holding on to resenting their wheelchairs with every ounce of will, as tightly as they can grip an armrest, refusing to move toward acceptance of having to use a wheelchair under any circumstance.

In my roles over the years, I’ve worked with a host of those with disabilities who simply won’t accept any wheelchair. No, the situation is never as dramatic as one refusing to use his or her wheelchair, telling others to get it out of sight, like a scene from a movie. Rather, the mode is that no wheelchair is ever good enough, that no one can ever do enough to satisfy their mobility needs, that there is simply always something lacking in their wheelchairs – and the frustration indefinitely builds in their lives.

On the surface, there’s some validity to the perspective that a wheelchair is never good enough, never up to the standards expected, never capable of allowing a meaningful, unrestricted life. After all, if you compare a wheelchair to full mobility on your own two legs, it will never prove comfortable enough, maneuverable enough, efficient enough, outdoors enough, or reliable enough – that is, it will always prove frustrating, no matter the technology, no matter how well a provider serves you. But, is that a wheelchair’s fault?

Of course not. With all of their technical advancements, wheelchairs are still wheelchairs, with practical limitations. Wheelchairs can take us farther, faster, but they’re still a seat, with wheels rolling on the ground, and certainly can’t replace one’s fully-functioning legs – and if one intentionally or subconsciously holds a wheelchair to such an impossible expectation as completely compensating for one’s inability to walk, dissatisfaction absolutely endures.

When I encounter users who are on their third brand of wheelchair in as many years, having exhausted a handful of providers, I follow the customer’s-always-right approach to the best of my professionalism and continue the path to resolve whatever technical issues I can – but I strive not to stop there, adding in a dose of understanding and lessons learned.

Disability is complex, with limitations that no one wants, and a wheelchair is the most concrete representation of that. My cerebral palsy is within me – it’s intangible that I can’t see or touch beneath my skin. But, my wheelchair is an unmistakable object. When I roll up to stairs, my wheelchair hits them, not my cerebral palsy; when I get stuck in deep snow, it’s my wheels spinning that are the cause, not my cerebral palsy; and, when my mobility is limited in any way, it’s due to my wheelchair, not my cerebral palsy. Why wouldn’t I – or, anyone – resent a wheelchair till the end?

Because such thinking places a wheelchair in the wrong order of life’s equation, that’s why. It is true that having to rely on a wheelchair for mobility prevents you from doing 1,001 tasks that you could do if you didn’t have a disability – and some of those tasks may have been your most beloved, passionate pursuits.

Yet, the fact is, as a result of your wheelchair, there are 8,999 tasks and goals that you can pursue despite disability, and when you shift your focus from the 1,001 shortcoming of using wheelchair to the 8,999 possibilities in your life, the world opens up, and frustrations disappear.

When I’ve shared this belief with frustrated wheelchair users over the years, some have had miraculous turnarounds in their mobility, where all of their wheelchair issues went away, and they’ve followed up with me a year or more later noting what they’ve subsequently achieved in life. Still, others moved on to other wheelchairs and providers, adding my assistance to their pile of frustrations, refusing to ever accept the limitations of using any wheelchair in life, placing the weight of more anguish directly on their wheelchairs than any one model could ever hold.

No, I don’t have a universal answer to the complex emotions that some project toward their wheelchairs, but I do have an answer: If you focus less on the inherent limitations of a “wheelchair,” and concentrate more on fully living as you are, it will empower your life. A wheelchair in itself can’t evolve – but you can.


Author: Mark E. Smith

The literary side of the WheelchairJunkie

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