When Wheelchairs Can’t Buy Happiness

You’ve likely heard the expression, “Money can’t buy happiness.”  However, have you ever heard the expression, “Wheelchairs can’t buy happiness?”


Surely, you’ve never heard the expression related to wheelchairs, but such an expression is increasingly true among those of us with disabilities, which can prove both inspiring and defeating all at once.

Undoubtedly, wheelchair culture continues culminating, where wheelchair design aesthetics play an ever-increasing role in consumers’ lives, where having the latest-greatest wheelchair model has utmost importance for a growing number of those with disabilities. 

Toward the positive, where wheelchairs were once a sole device of necessity, something dreaded by many, wheelchairs have now assumed aspects that are objects of desire, where cool colors and cutting-edge components are enthusiastically sought – a transformation that undoubtedly changes lives for the better.  And, this trend transcends wheelchairs, liberating many other aspects of disability in that when we feel better about our wheelchairs, we feel better about other aspects of our lives.

However, in this era where wheelchairs are increasingly seen as objects of some prestige, I’ve also witnessed a downside:  The emotional drain of “chasing the next best thing.”

There’s no question that products are finding their way to market in an increasing number, at a faster pace than ever before.  Twenty-five years ago, there were around 5 powerchair models readily available on the U.S. market.  Today, there are close to 100, with countless configurations and options.  And, the models keep advancing, resulting in better and better products.

In today’s market, when one buys a wheelchair, there’s certain to be a newer model or enhanced features shortly to come tomorrow.  For most users, this market reality is of no consequence, as they are happy with the wheelchairs that they have, knowing that as time passes, new products will come and go, and they’re enjoying the liberation that their existing wheelchairs provide.

Yet, some wheelchair users, like other mainstream consumers, are emotionally captured by the thought of not possessing the latest-greatest wheelchair, especially when they see others getting one – that is, they are suddenly disappointed by their existing wheelchairs, dwelling on wanting the new, latest-greatest one.

And, here’s where the troubling aspect of “wheelchair prestige” truly shows itself in this trend:  Dwelling on having the latest-greatest wheelchair is as self-defeating as dwelling on possessing the latest-greatest of any product – it’s an emotional chase that ultimately proves pointless.

Now, I’ll be the first to say that few aspects in our lives are more important than our wheelchairs — and innovations in wheelchairs have changed our lives.  However, wanting a new wheelchair simply to have the latest-greatest version rarely proves life changing.  Will moving up to newer electronics or a newer frame style offer slightly better performance, convenience, or function over one’s current wheelchair that’s, say, seven months old?  Maybe.  But, will it truly change one’s life?

Usually not.  Surely, tilt seating for pressure sores or upgrading from one class of wheelchair to another, for example, can change one’s life.  But, that’s not what we’re discussing.  Rather, what we’re discussing is wanting the latest-greatest model or features simply to have the latest-greatest – not out of necessity, but desire.  And, in that way, one’s life won’t change.  After all, chasing the latest-greatest of any product does not bring sustained happiness or liberation.  The latest-greatest car, computer, or wheelchair may distract one’s attention away from other aspects of life for a while, creating a false sense of happiness in its obtainment, but once the latest-greatest model or feature is topped by another, the quest starts all over – one can’t find sustained contentment by always seeking external sources of promised contentment.

Still, the reasons why some wheelchair consumers get caught in this cycle, however, can’t be dismissed as flawed consumerism or dysfunctional emotional pacification through buying – it’s a much deeper issue. 

Wheelchairs are intrinsically a foremost tool of promise and liberation – they literally mobilize our lives.  At the same time, they can also prove a focus of limitations, where they can’t always take us everywhere we wish, physically or emotionally.  The cumulative result is that one can view a wheelchair from a very seductive perspective:  If only my wheelchair was a little better, my life would be better – I could go farther, faster, easier, looking cooler.

At some point, though, that outlook becomes defeating, unable to deliver its promise.  Yes, it’s great to have esteem and passion about one’s wheelchair, and even want the coolest one ever.  However, we can’t hinge all of our hopes and frustrations on our wheelchairs, thinking that if we somehow just obtain the latest-greatest one, we will somehow find sustained fulfillment and liberation in life.  Unfortunately, contentment over disability isn’t so easily obtained. 

Great wheelchairs liberate and inspire us, captivating us with their coolness, proving a positive force in our lives.  However, dwelling on having the latest-greatest wheelchair – believing that if we can only obtain the newest model or features, our lives will change – proves an ultimately unfulfilling quest.  In this way, successful mobility doesn’t come from dwelling on possessing the latest-greatest products in hopes that they will fill a void.  Rather, successful mobility comes from allowing our current wheelchairs to assuredly foster the quality of our lives day after day.


Author: Mark E. Smith

The literary side of the WheelchairJunkie

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