People First, Then Wheelchairs


By Mark E. Smith 

What if I told you that even the most liberating wheelchairs have virtually nothing to do with technology? You might very well think that I’d lost my mind, namely since with all of the aerospace materials and advanced electronics used today, surely wheelchairs are technology-based.

However, I ask you to hold off judging my sanity for one moment, and consider one all-important question: If the most liberating wheelchairs have little to do with technology, what do they have to do with? 

In a word, people. It’s interesting how as users, providers, and manufacturers, we can get so wrapped up in the fundamentals of wheelchair technology that, at times, some forget that wheelchairs are less about technology, and more about people and the lives that they lead. I mean, surely we have to look at wheelchairs as high-tech solutions that empower our lives.However, in the purest form, a wheelchair isn’t about its technology; rather, it’s about the person who uses it. After all, you can have the most advanced wheelchair in the world, but if it doesn’t fit your lifestyle, it’s a moot point.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting with a family who was in the process of selecting a new power wheelchair for their daughter. As it turned out, the daughter was exactly my own daughter’s age, ten. While their daughter had spina bifida, she of course had everything in common with my own daughter – Webkinz collecting, adoring Hannah Montana, obsessing over Lip Smackers fruity lip balm, and all of the other subjects that ten-year-old girls are into these days.

Now, while it would have been easy to jump right in and speak with the family about typical power wheelchair specs – seating, speed, the differences between models, and such – we spoke very little of it to begin with. What we did discuss was how the daughter liked to play tetherball during gym at school, how she participates in a Girl Scouts troop, and how she spends a lot of time at her grandparents’ home. Surely, these topics may seem a bit off from the conversation of selecting a new power wheelchair; however, they were as important to the selection process as any other technical specifications – and, arguably, more so.

The fact is, the most important role of the young lady’s new wheelchair would be to allow her to live to her fullest, to be as independent and active as possible in every aspect of life sought. In this way, selecting a new wheelchair wasn’t about selecting a device; rather, it was about serving her needs – that is, playing tetherball, volunteering in her community with her Girl Scouts troop, or bopping out at the Hanna Montana concert. Put simply, a new power wheelchair had to be about her needs, wishes, and wants, not merely four wheels and a seat or the latest-greatest technology.

I heard from the family last week, and they expressed how much the young lady is now enjoying her new power wheelchair. The power elevating seat allows her to be at the height of the other kids when playing tetherball; the large batteries allow her to go from school to her Girl Scouts meeting without worrying about range; and, the ultra-compact power base allows her to maneuver all but effortlessly in her grandparents’ small home. As it turned out, a wheelchair was successfully chosen that allows her to be her in every sense.

Of course, wheelchairs have everything to do with technology, where advancements have dramatically improved our mobility. However, above all else, wheelchairs have to do with people, where selection and use is about one’s individual lifestyle, not sterile technology.

No matter if you’re a wheelchair user, provider, or manufacturer, it’s vital to remind yourself from time to time of the foremost rule toward mobility products: People first, then wheelchairs. 


Author: Mark E. Smith

The literary side of the WheelchairJunkie

2 thoughts on “People First, Then Wheelchairs”

  1. Absolutely Fantastic Article!!! You need to send that to seating specialists and therapists around the country. My family went to 5 therapist until we found someone that took my dreams and goals into consideration. Too many people are too “textbook.” They look at just getting by with medical needs. Very few take lifestyle into consideration.

  2. I’m thrilled to read about your pivitose, pixie-dusted trip to WDW with your little girl! We are a special-needs family,too, and we will not vacation anywhere else!

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