There are a lot of different kinds of wheelchair users. Some people are born needing a wheelchair and others have an accident or illness resulting in them needing a wheelchair. There are those with spinal cord injuries who are paralyzed and unable to walk at all, those who can walk most of the time but need a wheelchair for long days out, and those like me, who use a wheelchair 90 percent of the time but can walk short distances using crutches some days.
People like me who have an accident or illness that results in needing a wheelchair go through a difficult transition. You have to re-learn how to do things, learn what you can and can’t do and adapt to living life in a wheelchair. I remember when I first starting using a wheelchair, I felt vulnerable and didn’t like going out on my own in case something happened or I got stuck somewhere. I also experienced bullying and was judged for using one when I could still walk short distances, which made it even harder. One of my biggest issues was that I believed what a lot of others do — that being a wheelchair user means you need a lot of help and can’t do things for yourself.
Of course, I now know that is a load of rubbish for most people, so I just want to clear up some other misconceptions about what wheelchair users can and can’t do.
1. Wheelchair users can’t live independently.
When I realized I was going to need to use a wheelchair more and more, I feared I would never be able to live independently. As I was new to using a wheelchair I foolishly believed what everyone around me was saying — that I “would never be able to live on my own because I wouldn’t be able to do things for myself.”
In reality, saying someone in a wheelchair can’t live independently is codswallop. It took me a long time but eventually I realized I could live independently; I would just need a bit of support to do so. Having some help in the home has helped me to stay independent. It means I can focus on the important things in life rather than the everyday meaningless tasks, such as washing up, cleaning and cooking.
2. You can’t do any job apart from working in an office.
Again, a load of rubbish! If you have a dream job, all you have to do is fight for it. It may take you slightly longer to get any qualifications or the experience you need, but if you are determined then you’ll get there! There are obviously some jobs you won’t be able to do, but there are services in place to help people find work, and most jobs are required by law to make reasonable adjustments to allow disabled people to work.
3. You’ll have to stop all sports and activities.
This one was a big deal for me; I have been sporty all my life and one of the first questions I asked at the hospital was if I would be able to swim again. It took about four years out of exercise and training before it clicked that it didn’t matter what people said or thought; if I wanted to swim then I could, I just might have to make a few adjustments to my stroke (like not kicking my legs).
I then discovered a local disability sport charity and they pointed me in the direction of wheelchair racing and adaptive rowing. As a result, I now do more sports than before I was in a wheelchair! I might not be doing what are considered “normal sports” but it’s still sports and most importantly, I still love it!
4. You won’t ever have a relationship or children.
To be honest, only part of this has affected me. At the time of my diagnosis, I was in a long-term relationship and he made me feel like if I left him, I would never be with another person, so I should stay as his partner. Eventually I decided he was wrong and it would just be a case of finding the right person, and the relationship ended. In terms of never having children, unless there is a medical reason for you not to be able to, of course you can have children. If there is one thing kids are good at, it is adapting, and if they grow up with a parent in a wheelchair, they won’t know any different anyway!
5. You can’t live a “normal life.”
First of all, what is a normal life? Everyone’s lives are different depending on how they grew up, where they lived, any friends they had and any outside influences. At first it seemed like this statement was correct. I was rubbish at steering and couldn’t get up curbs without help! As I developed my wheelchair skills, I managed to gradually gain back the majority of my independence. Now I socialize, volunteer, play in a concert band, participate in sports and live on my own. To me, that is my normal life.
So when you next see someone in a wheelchair, just remember they are the same as you, apart from using wheels to get around rather than legs!