By Mark E. Smith
Here’s a riddle: What’s the difference between you and me when our wheelchairs breakdown?
The answer is, when your wheelchair breaks down, it’s obviously a very serious issue. However, when my wheelchair breaks down, it’s a Stephen King movie in the making.
Now, I know that some assume that my own wheelchair never has issues. After all, I’m the WheelchairJunkie, himself, and my company makes my own wheelchair – not only am I supposed to have top-of-the-line equipment, but I’m also supposed to know exactly how to use and maintain my wheelchair at the level of a mobility professional. However, there’s one problem with that thought – my wheelchair doesn’t have a clue who I am!
Truly, if my wheelchair could talk, it would say, “Dude, all I know is that you’re a guy with cerebral palsy relying on me 18 hours per day, and when I’m ready to take a break, I don’t care who you are or what you’re doing – it’s lights out for me, brother!”
And, so my wheelchair does periodically have issues, just like I’m sure that Bill Gates finds himself pressing CTRL+ALT+DELETE to unfreeze his darn computer. Machines are machines and, unfortunately, they don’t care who we are. Of course, hopefully Bill Gates and I learn from any issues, and use the experience to help our engineering teams make better products, but we’re real people, using our own products, and surely issues occur from time to time.
Despite my machine – or powerchair, as it is – having little reverence for a mobility man of my seated stature, it at least had a keen sense of where to stop in this situation: On the sidewalk the other morning, about two blocks from my house, on my way to work, in relatively good winter weather – there are certainly worse places to breakdown.
Now, probably a lot like your instinct if your chair has ever stopped in its tracks, I immediately tried to turn it back on, hoping that maybe I just accidentally hit the power button. But, of course, life is never, ever so kind.
Nope! Sure, my chair came back on – flashing error codes, that is. I know that I sound like a rolling encyclopedia when I answer your questions and quickly note what error codes point to what condition. However, that’s when I’m calm and cool in my office – not stranded on a sidewalk, wondering how to get myself out of such a predicament? Therefore, not only didn’t I have a clue as to what the error codes on my joystick conveyed, but even if I did, I couldn’t do anything about it myself, unable to reach beyond my seat. Of course, I caught myself glancing back toward my house like a sailor adrift at sea, wondering if he can swim back to shore, to which the voice in my head reminded me, “Give it up, buddy, you’re stuck!” I hate my inner voice, namely because he’s always right.
I pulled out my cell phone, and called one of my co-workers for help – a true luxury that, unfortunately, most wheelchair users don’t have. However, while I waited for him to arrive, a woman came out of her house, noting that I was obviously stuck, smiling and glad to see me. She mentioned that she knew who I was, acknowledging that she knew where I worked, and called me by name; but, I had no clue who she was, other than a woman seemingly delighted to see me stuck in front of her house at 7:30 in the morning.
“Do you think that you can fix it?” she asked, smiling.
“No, I have someone on the way,” I said.
“Well, if you can’t fix it, I guess everyone’s in trouble then,” she replied, laughing. “It looks like Mr. Wheelchair is stuck.”
“Oh, I can fix it, just not here,” I said, clarifying the situation.
“Do you know what’s wrong with it?” she asked, looking at one side of my chair, then the other, as if she might see something wrong.
“No,” I simply said, looking up the street, hoping I’d see my co-worker coming my way.
“If you don’t know what’s wrong with it, how are you going to fix it?” she asked, still smiling, clearly enjoying this Q-and-A of the WheelchairJunkie stuck on the sidewalk.
So, it’s just my luck that I not only had my powerchair stop dead on my way to work, but in front of Annie Wilkes’ house, the Kathy Bates character from the movie, Misery, who holds her favorite writer hostage out of obsessive adoration.
Then, I swear, the woman popped the exact question reminiscent of Misery that I didn’t want to hear, “Why don’t you come inside the house and get warm.”
Firstly, again, I’ve seen the movie, and I wasn’t about to fall for that trick! Secondly, I was strapped into a 300 lb. powerchair that was dead in its tracks, and there were four steps into her house – she couldn’t get me in her house if she wanted to. Lucky for me.
“My co-worker will be here any moment,” I said, hoping I was right.
“Well, I just think this whole situation is hysterical!” she said, raising her voice like she’d won something.
Fortunately, my co-worker showed up with my accessible van that he’d picked up from my house, whisking me off to work and repair.
It turned out that earlier that morning, while I waited with my daughter at the school bus stop, my daughter was horsing around, and caught a cable on the back of my powerchair, sending my powerchair into an error code, which promptly went away. At the time, I reckoned that she’d simply jostled a connection; however, as I later learned, she’d pulled the cable to a point where the connector barely had contact, and it waited patiently to lose entire contact two blocks later, leaving me stranded. As I’ve explained to my daughter, accidents happen and once we found the issue at my office, a new cable allowed me to quickly get rolling again.
All of this reminds me of two important lessons: Firstly, my powerchair and daughter are just as quick to wreak havoc on my mobility as the next guy’s, as they don’t give a hoot who I am. And, secondly, from now on, I should avoid the sidewalk in front of that lady’s house – I may not get away from her next time!