These are the words I expected to hear the first time I used my wheelchair.
I have spinal osteoarthritis, and at the ripe old age of 29, my health has gone downhill so rapidly- I've gone from working as a stablehand 8 months ago, to using a cane, to now being in a wheelchair for longer outings.
I spent a lot of time googling, and discovered I fell under the category of aN 'occasional wheelchair user.' I was thrilled to know I wasn't alone but terrified of what awaited me.
I expected to be stared at, to be treated like I was stupid, to be looked down upon, to be ignored...
The most embarrassing part I anticipated was getting out my car, walking to the rear, removing the wheelchair, unfolding it, then sitting down in it and wheeling off.
Fraud! Lazy! Faker!
I was thankfully wrong. I was much harder on myself in the lead up to this first outing than anyone else was with me. In fact, and perhaps my general disposition helped, but people were nicer. Apart from not being at eye level, I felt respected, but not pitied.
Even at one stage when I left my chair and slowly hobbled to the toilet with my cane, I didn't hear claims of 'It's a miracle!' or 'I knew she was faking it.'
Don't get me wrong... I understand these things are bound to happen one day, but I was pleasantly surprised at my first experience.
So here are a few tips from myself, a complete beginner, to anyone else who might be facing the same fears.
- Get accustomed to your chair at home, if you can. I sat in the backyard with mine for a while, figured out what I had to do to go forward, backward, left and right. I even got brave (or bored... or stupid...) and attempted to do wheelies... Which leads me to point 2.
- Practice wheelies. There are heaps of really good instructional videos on YouTube. My understanding is that the ones that encourage you to go backward before snapping forward aren't all that helpful, as you will generally be in forward motion when needing them. Bounce your front wheels, try leaning back, etc. You WILL hit the deck. Get tipper bars, or do it somewhere soft (not on hard pavers like I did, with thankfully only an elbow graze to show for it). That way, you'll never have to rely on your mother taking you over train tracks and almost tipping you out the front hitting a line, and then kneeing you in the back trying to tip your wheelchair back again. (I do love you still, Mum, it's okay).
- Ring ahead. Find out how accessible the place is that you intend on going to. For instance, I discovered the fair I was going to was on two levels but had a lift. I can walk short distances, so I didn't require accessible toilets, but if you do- it's much easier to ring and ask beforehand.
- Practice taking apart and putting your wheelchair back together, folding it if necessary, before going out. If you are like me, I find it awfully embarrassing to try and figure things out in public. I'd rather rock up, and look like I know what I am doing, even if my heart is beating a million miles an hour with anxiety... Which brings me to point 5.
- Own it. I'm sure being scared, feeling shame, and embarrassment are pretty common feelings when it comes to first-time wheelchair use. This is when faking it comes in handy. Even if you don't feel it- ACT like you don't give a damn what anyone else thinks. Smile, be cheery, be polite. Don't invite pity. I wheeled my way into a bridal fair with a huge smile on my face, chatted to everyone like there was nothing wrong, and had a good laugh at myself when I bumped into things.
- No really- own it. At the end of the day, I am lucky enough to stand up and walk away from my wheelchair. That may not last forever, of course, and I'll take whatever comes at me, but in the meantime, I refuse to let the world outside of my family and closest friends know my deepest feelings about my health. Of course, I'd rather be healthy and of course I'd rather not need a wheelchair, but for now- such is life. I am blessed to have so many wonderful opportunities in my life, and blessed to be able to venture out again. Look at your wheelchair as just that, a blessing to enable you to continue to live life to the best of your ability.
I hope this post helps the next person madly wondering what to expect when first using a wheelchair!
Photo Credit: D Sharon Pruitt of Pink Sherbet Photography