By Mark E. Smith
I asked a buddy of mine how he like his accessible van dealer, and he gave me an unforgettable answer: “They remind me of my wheelchair dealer. Every time I go to either one, even though they’re surrounded by equipment needing immediate service, it’s like they’re just sitting around playing cards on a Tuesday afternoon.”
While there are many terrific mobility providers, my buddy is on to a reality about some providers that runs deeper than most realize. After all, one would think that with wheelchairs so critical to consumers’ lives, providers would scramble to get each job done as quickly as possible. So, then why do some providers seem so sluggish – that is, seemingly playing cards on a Tuesday afternoon while you’re stuck in bed waiting for your wheelchair?
For those types of providers, the answer is quite blunt: They simply don’t recognize the critical role of wheelchairs in our lives. See, I don’t think that sluggish providers merely lack professionalism. Rather, I believe that sluggish providers lack a far more crucial trait: Empathy.
As one who’s used a wheelchair my entirely life, nothing has proven more alarming to me than when my wheelchair has failed – that is, whenever it wouldn’t turn on, or an error code appeared, or the batteries suddenly died. The realization that my life had just come to a halt, that I was entirely helpless, and that my independence was gone always ushered in my most disconcerting emotions. For those who don’t have a disability, I explain the feeling of a suddenly-dead wheelchair as like that of being in the middle of a Nevada desert, countless miles from a town, on an unpopulated road, in 110-degree heat, with no cell phone, and your car simply dies in its tracks – now what do you do?
I didn’t grow-up in the greatest of families, where I experienced and dealt with some very harrowing experiences. But, none ever placed the sick feeling in my stomach like when my wheelchair simply stopped working. Why is it that I could handle a volatile home life with seeming nerves of steel, but the minute that my wheelchair wouldn’t turn on, my heart raced and I felt alarmed?
Because the entirety of my life has depended upon my mobility – it’s that simple. Even as an adolescent, I knew that as long as I could move via my wheelchair, I could handle anything. If Mom was having one of “those kinds of nights,” I could roll to the phone and call for help. If I needed to get to the store to buy my little sister and me food, I could do it. And, most importantly, I could get myself to high school each morning, no matter what went on at home. As long as my power wheelchair worked, I had control in my life.
However, the minute that my wheelchair died, I was helpless and vulnerable. My sense of control was gone, all abilities lost. I felt my pulse quicken, the blood seemingly rush from my head, thinking to myself, Please, Lord, not now….
And, I can never forget that feeling, never shake it. I can’t help but wonder, then, if the career path that I chose in working with mobility products – and, more importantly, toward serving my fellow users – had something to do with my subconsciously wishing to control the one aspect of my life that I never felt completely in control of: My mobility?
Of course it did. In fact, in not only wanting to avoid feeling that raw pit in my stomach for myself by preventing my own mobility issues, I’ve built a life that strives toward ideally helping others avoid that feeling. I take it personally when I learn of anyone, anywhere, with any wheelchair that has an issue. In fact, the pit in my stomach is rawer than ever, where I feel my gut wrench every time I see a message board post, receive an email, or get a phone call that someone’s wheelchair isn’t working, where I recognize that one’s life may have just come to a screeching halt without mobility – and it resonates within me, where I just want to help. I suppose that my experience is a lot like the fact that recovered drug addicts make the best recovery counselors because they see themselves in their clients, knowing their struggles first hand, with absolute empathy for what others are experiencing.
And, that’s what I think some providers lack – that is, the empathetic reaction to mobility issues that’s needed to truly pour oneself into one’s work. Sure, some providers are terrific, while others are downright terrible. But, there are some in-between who aren’t bad people, they just don’t get it – they don’t recognize that one’s life can come to a halt when one’s wheelchair isn’t working – and it hurts their business and harms consumers.
What can a consumer do, though, to help a provider have some semblance of empathy? In my experience, simply trying to make a real connection with such providers – saying, I’m going to be stuck in bed until you get my chair fixed. I’m sure you can imagine what it would be like to be stuck in bed for a week, so I trust you’ll do whatever you can to get my chair back to me in a day or two… – is worth a try. Providers don’t always register the importance of a wheelchair in one’s life, but sometimes when we sincerely, patiently try to explain it to them, it works wonders.
No, one doesn’t have to have a disability or first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to be stranded by a dead wheelchair to be a great provider. However, having empathy – as in realizing how one would feel if stranded in the Nevada desert by a broken-down car – certainly wouldn’t hurt. See, empathy doesn’t have to come from an identical experience; rather, empathy comes from simply appreciating the plight of others, and sincerely striving to be of assistance.