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Why Getting My First Wheelchair Was a Blessing

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Shortly after my 11th birthday, I sat in my brand new wheelchair in the dimly lit mobility store. I tried not to notice the blonde receptionist in the corner consoling my silently crying mother, giving her a pep talk. “She needs this; it will allow her to go outside more, and start high school. It will help her.” A few minutes later, my mum came back teary-eyed with an unsure smile on her face as she confirmed the lease on my first wheelchair.

I saw my reflection in the window. I looked small and pale, surrounded by the bulky frame of the electric blue wheelchair. I tried pushing myself around a little, soon to weak to do anymore. I couldn’t stop looking at my reflection. I look back now, and I realize at that very moment, my life changed forever.

In the previous six months of my illness before getting that wheelchair, when I did go out I was so limited by how far I could walk that it hindered me drastically. I couldn’t hold up my body, and my hands were too weak to use crutches — they were raw from trying. Every time I left the house it would end in tears of exhaustion — even from stumbling around the local corner shop. This meant I was housebound for about four of those six months.

A turning point (what felt like a moment of defeat) was trying to walk around a clothing store with crutches. I had lost so much weight in recent months that none of my clothes fit me anymore, so I went out with my parents to look at clothes. After a few minutes I remember standing there, hunched over my crutches and wondering how I would get back to the car, fighting tears of exhaustion. I ended up sitting on a ladder left out by a store worker to rest for a few minutes before the trek back to the car with my parents. Once I got to the car and got my breath back, I told my mum I wanted a wheelchair… simply so I had a better chance of being able to do “ordinary” things without being so exhausted I cried.

Within days, my mum had arranged for a rented wheelchair supplied by the British Red Cross.

The following weeks were fabulous. I was able to do things I would never have been able to do — get new clothes, go to a corner shop, sit in a park. I was able to get a coffee with a friend without it destroying my energy for days after. I felt a new lease on life and was excited to go out again. I had hope about starting high school and simply having that bit of independence.

It wasn’t all good, though. The novelty of having a little independence soon wore off when I noticed the pitiful looks. People talking to my mum or friend instead of me, people putting on their “childish” voice to talk to me. The sneers. The confused looks from children. Being at crotch height. The indignity of having strangers haul me up stairs, or the embarrassment of crashing into store isles simply because they wouldn’t fit a wheelchair. At times it felt like a hammer taken to my chest with shame and embarrassment. It changed me.

I wondered at times if it was better to use crutches, or stay at home rather than go out in the chair and have my soul crushed by the way I was treated. The constant comments of “But you don’t look sick…” “What’s wrong with you?” and “You are so young, why are you in a wheelchair?” soon became the voices in my head. I have always wondered if when parents saw me in that chair, whether they feared their own child would “end up like me.”

I am now 18 and have been able to walk without aids for two years now, thanks to my condition’s natural fluctuation and a huge amount of hard work. I have since discovered a love for martial arts and spend my free time pole dancing at a local dance studio.

I can now say confidently that for me, using a wheelchair is definitely a mix of good and bad. It is up to you to decide whether the ability to go out with family and friends, go for a roll in the park, and go shopping (without being exhausted or in pain after) is worth more than the false feelings of defeat that may follow. It isn’t a sign of weakness to use a wheelchair; it is a sign you want to live a fuller life. Wheelchairs empower people, provide independence and enable people to have memories and experiences they would otherwise never have had.

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Thinkstock photo by kzenon.

Originally published: March 1, 2017
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