Mobility Aids and MS: Wheelchairs

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In this series of articles about mobility aids, I have already covered walking aids. Now it is time to delve into the scary stuff wheelchairs. The question of wheelchairs is with you from the beginning. When diagnosed with MS, one of the first questions that comes to mind is, "Will I be in a wheelchair?"

Chances are your doctor did not answer that, but I will. Statistics show that less than half (up to 40%) of MSers use a wheelchair at all, and only some of those end up in a wheelchair full time. For many, it takes a very long time.

It is not unusual to use a wheelchair part time, trading with a cane or walker. On my first electric scooter, I had a holder to carry my cane so it would be handy when I wanted to get up and walk. A person who can still walk might use a wheelchair just sometimes on a bad day, only for long distances or to ease fatigue. Often people seem to be afraid of wheelchairs. Why? Annette Funicello said, "For me, the wheelchair symbolizes disability in a way a cane does not." No one wants that "disabled" label that seems to come with a wheelchair. Most of us have grown up learning that Society has negative feelings about wheelchairs, and it has been easy to adopt that negative stereotype. That is funny, almost, because children are often drawn to a chair on wheels, especially an electric one, but also a regular manual chair the negativity is not natural. A wheeled chair is a delight until we learn that a wheelchair means something is wrong. No wonder we cringe at the idea of needing a wheelchair.

There were undoubtedly people with walking difficulties from the beginning of time. There is mention of wheeled beds in 530BC in both Greece and Italy, but it is unclear if these were for disabled movement or if they were simply the first baby beds. Anyway, the Chinese had some sort of wheeled chair by 525BC, so there were attempts even then.

Phillip II of Spain commissioned a project in 1595 that resulted in his "invalid's chair," considered the first identifiable wheelchair. Every century after that brought new advances in wheel chassis, wheel size and type, and building material. In the early 1900's spokes were added to the wheels and the first motorized chair was developed. In 1932, when Harry Jennings built the first folding, tubular steel wheelchair for paraplegic friend Herbert Everest, the modern standard wheelchair had been developed.

Suddenly the wheelchair was easy to move and wheelers had gained another level of mobility. As with many devices in the 20th Century, wheelchairs went through enhancements and developments using electricity and new materials, and adding features. By the end of the century, wheelchairs were available in a wide choice of manual and self-propelled models that facilitated activities of all kinds and included features that even allowed upright positions and the ability to climb stairs. Wow. Wheelers had evolved from the feared label "disabled" into that clever phrase "differently-abled."

We need to learn and educate the public that a person in a wheelchair is like anyone else. We need to learn that a wheelchair is not the end of living nor is it necessarily a barrier to living.   It is simply one kind of challenge, and it is manageable.

Living in a wheelchair, even part time, requires a new set of awareness techniques. Prepare yourself for what you are about to face.

For example

  • Environment - With wheelchairs you may want to rethink your living arrangements and make some modifications to ensure your daily life is easy, comfortable, and safe. if you are in a wheelchair only temporarily, still able to stand and walk, it is a good idea to sit and try regular daily tasks, discovering which are more around difficult or awkward. This rolling review will highlight and prioritize areas that need attention for remodeling or at least adjustment.
  • Perspective - You begin to meet people on more of an eye-to-stomach than an eye-to-eye basis. Shopping is a new experience, as is reaching.
  • Safety/Comfort - Surroundings provide new challenges like judging the edge of a curb cut so you don't fall over the curb (trust me on this one), run over the cat's tail or unwary people's feet. Cushions guard against pressure sores; the proper size and type of seat protect posture and joints.

For MSers who experience balance, dexterity, strength, or posture problems selecting the right wheelchair may not be a simple task. In this part of the series we are going to talk about wheelchairs: manual, scooters, and power chairs. We will also talk about transporting the wheelchair and transferring to and from it. Next we will cover manual wheelchairs. There's more to them than you might think.

Notes and Links Here are a few posts on Health Central and articles: Will I End Up In a Wheelchair?
Holly Elliott experiences a chair - read the comments for different experiences
Mandy Crest Coping Wheeling Through Time

History of Wheelchairs