Happy international wheelchair day. When I was 7 I asked for a power chair for my birthday. Until then I had been pushed first in a pushchair, then in a McLaren buggy, and then in a manual chair. Not long before I’d met some adult AAC users and they all had power chairs and I knew that is what I needed. Being a powerchair user has brought me a life full of adventures. Not only have I had the opportunity to represent my nation at the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020, but it has allowed me to enjoy life with a passion.
Getting my first power chair
Following my request my Occupational Therapist, the lovely Jenny, arranged for a company to come out with a BobCat chair. The minute I saw it I knew it was for me. I sat in it and spent as long as I was allowed doing donuts and just driving back and forward along the deck outside my home. I loved the swizzing around, and around, and the feeling of freedom.
My birthday is in April and I didn’t get the chair for nearly a year. It took that long to sort funding. Sadly, wheelchair services said no child needed to be independent until they were going to secondary school. The result was if I wanted a power chair then it was up to us, but Jenny helped with the applications.
Powerchair provides the opportunity to explore
I was so excited when the chair arrived. I might have become overnight independent, but initially, everything took longer. When I was being pushed I never got to look and explore, whoever was pushing was in charge of where we went and what I saw. All those colourful shelves at my eye level in the supermarket and the hems of clothes on hanging rails were out of bounds until now. I needed to find out what they were!
Mum’s way of dealing with this was to give me my own list of items to find in the supermarket and send me on my way. With the chair riser, I was always asked to get higher up or lower down than my normal eye line. The items were always light and easy to lift because of my hand function. But Mum always had an ulterior motive, if I couldn’t reach I was expected to find a shop assistant and ask for help on my communication aid. I always returned with a lapful of items, including a few of my own purchases. Unless we already had a cupboardful at home of my favourite snacks I was rewarded by us buying my choices.
One of my first early experiences of being independent was leaving Mum at the tills in Marks and Spencers and driving off down to WH Smiths. It was probably only 200 metres in an indoor shopping centre but for me it was freedom. Just to be able to go somewhere alone and have an explore was an adventure in itself at age 8. Mum says she was petrified of me going off alone but rationalised it that no one would kidnap a child strapped into a big yellow-powered wheelchair, it would be just too much hard work.
Access all areas
The BobCat was also an off-road chair and that was amazing. We lived on the North Downs in Surrey and suddenly we were out and about all the time. Before that, we had had to stick to proper paths but with this chair, nothing was out of bounds. At weekends and in the holidays we were out with friends every day, up to the racecourse, over to the swings, around the woods. The BobCat well and truly spoiled me for the future, making access easy.
At 11 I got a power chair from wheelchair services and we added money to it so I could still have the riser. Sadly, it wasn’t the same. There was nothing wrong with the chair and for everyday use, it did the job. It was an indoor-outdoor chair and just couldn’t cope with my outdoor life.
Loss of freedom
As I outgrew the BobCat we had a period when suddenly many of my activities were curtailed.
In some ways I didn’t miss all this as much I could have done. By now I was into sport, particularly boccia so most of my weekends were being eaten up playing and training. But I still look back fondly on those times when we were always out and about.
Fortunately, at the age of 15, the Variety Club came along and agreed to fund a much more robust outdoor chair. Suddenly I felt safe again in most situations and I was more than happy to get on a bus to town to meet a friend or have a go at anything new. Sadly I don’t now travel by bus in the UK following an accident, but that’s another story.
Gaining missed experiences
Looking back I can see how those early days in the BobCat were me making up for lost time. The time when most toddlers and young children are exploring their environment. Without a wheelchair then I was limited in where I could go, what I could see, and the choice of what I did. Now I celebrate my wheelchair everyday not just on international wheelchair day.
The value of a riser, tilt and recline
In my humble opinion, all power chair users need to have a riser, and a tilt and recline facility. This has given me the opportunity to:
- Sit at any desk with my peers.
- Be included in mealtimes both at home and out and about, with family and friends.
- Look people in the eye when they are standing so I can talk on an equal level.
- Rise to a lectern to present.
- Get a great view in the cinema or theatre rather than staring at the back of someone’s head.
- Take in the view over a high wall or windowsill.
- Pull washing off the line in the garden.
The tilt facility is essential, no one sits in a static position all day. So, having the tilt and recline facility means I can continually adjust my seating position for comfort. It also means I can easily get in and out of my chair for a standing transfer. The low forward angled seat allows me to get my feet onto the floor and take my own weight to stand and sit. Bonus all around I think.