The first wheelchair was invented in 1595 for King Philip of Spain, and since then wheelchairs have become an important means of independence for many with mobility impairments. There are too many types to discuss here but primarily they can be split into two groups, self-propelled (active user) and electric (passive user).
This blog is primarily referring to the latter and the problems associated with electric wheelchairs, but this is not to say that active users will not relate to the issues being addressed. Now to establish my point of view, I use an electric chair, it’s my only way of moving freely when my joints don’t allow or would otherwise cause me pain. Anyone who knows me can tell you that the thought of being pushed around in a wheelchair makes me feel physically sick, I’m a control freak, I like my independence and don’t cope well with someone else controlling my movements. As a result, I use an Alber e-fix™ system on an active user chair, this gives me minimal support whilst ensuring I am comfortable. It can fit in most car boots which gives me the flexibility for travel without a specialised vehicle, simplifying my life.
However, there is a major downside to using my chair and that is lack of passive exercise, when I am in my chair I simply don’t move as much. This has negative implications for circulation, cardiovascular health and muscle tone (among other things). In order to combat this problem, I try to fill my life with accessible activity, primarily Frame Running, Horse Riding and Sailing in my case. It’s a delicate but imperative balance to maintain and, particularly in my youth, I have fallen foul of the temptations of ease and efficiency, a cycle that is as difficult to break as it is dangerous.
Herein lies the problem with electric wheelchairs. Now, I understand that for some disabilities there is no choice, wheelchairs are the only option. For others, often referred to as ambulant wheelchair users, the day’s activities and their physical condition dictate where and when the chair comes into play. This works well whilst the balance is maintained, but it’s far too easy for the scales to tip towards wheelchair use, after all it is easier, less painful and often more efficient. The problem comes when the over-use of a chair leads to loss of muscle and fitness which in turn makes it harder to move, which subsequently results in more use of the chair. Remember that time when you skipped your gym class/bike ride/yoga class for a week or two and the next time it was a real slog, this is what I’m referring to. All too often we take the easy route, make excuses, I’ll do it tomorrow, I’m having a bad day etc.
I have been there, in my early teens all I wanted was an electric chair to make my life easier and pain free. Thankfully my parents had the sense (and tact) to ensure that I didn’t over-use it, which has resulted in me maintaining a good level of mobility to this day, but as an adult I now see the slippery slope that I came so close to sliding down.
Now you might notice that the title of this blog is ‘in defence of wheelchairs’, which leads me to my next point. My wheelchair is fantastic, I’m sitting in it right now writing this, it offers me a comfortable bespoke seat that I can take with me almost anywhere, it offers me freedom of movement and, most of all, independence. I can go shopping in it any enjoy
browsing for hours with no joint-enforced time limit. I can take it to gigs, the theatre, and on holiday. It’s just as much a part of my identity as my eye colour and my smile and I’m very glad for it. Wheelchairs are not something to be shunned, they can have a positive impact on health, giving someone a more active social life and enabling them to live life to the full. The effect it can have on a person’s mental wellbeing is not to be understated, this is something I’d like to emphasise, there is no point being the fittest disabled person on Earth if you are miserable, in pain and exhausted every day.
However, there is a balance, and movement can be achieved by everybody. Being in a wheelchair does not exclude you from exercising in other ways and there is no excuse for not incorporating movement into your day. It might be hard to begin with, it might hurt and you might even feel self-conscious. I would implore you to stick with it, whatever it is. Remember you are moving for you, your health, your happiness and longevity. Whether you choose to go for a short walk, without your chair, or partake in a sitting exercise class, even 10 minutes of water-bottle weights is good for you. You can take your bike, trike or running frame for a ride or even incorporate the equipment into your commute or shopping trip. It’s not easy, but it should be enjoyable, if it’s not then switch it up. I can guarantee you that the best form of exercise is the one you don’t realise you are doing, it becomes habit, a part of your life that you look forward to, even crave.
For parents out there I can see the challenge, no one wants to see their child struggling, or in pain. But know this, it’s often that struggle that builds determination and motivation. A child with a disability will face a lot of challenges, barriers and struggles. It’ the ability to overcome and look for the good that will get them to adulthood and beyond. The challenges never go away, it’s the human condition to face adversity, regardless of disability. By arming your child with a strong mindset and an enjoyment of healthy activities you are building the foundations that will hold them steady for life. Freedom of movement is a powerful thing and there is an unlimited number of ways to do it.