I can’t walk anymore, so I move around in a power wheelchair. One young friend was surprised to learn that the chair must be plugged in at night to recharge. Because she had never seen me move without the wheelchair, I think she presumed that somehow, robot-like, the chair was integrated into my body.
As I rode from the living room to the bedroom recently, I left behind a trail of shredded white paper. Something was wedged under the chair, but all I could do was drive aimlessly around hoping that whatever was under there would come out. After a few minutes the carpet was white with this freshly laid snow, but didn’t look like a place to make snow angels.
It was a roll of toilet paper. As I drove from room-to-room, tiny shreds of paper rubbed off the roll. What to do? Google wasn’t likely to have an answer to “How do I get toilet paper out from under my electric wheelchair?” Suddenly the paper roll surrendered and popped out, and the only problem I had left was who was going to vacuum up all that paper snow.
I’ve never run over any people or little dogs with my wheelchair, but recently I snagged the edge of a plastic bag filled with garbage that I only noticed after I left a trail of refuse, including yogurt cups, used Kleenex, advertising brochures and orange peels. My neighbor pulled the shredded plastic out of the wheel that was dragging it, but I had to take the wheelchair to the repair shop so they could pick the pieces of plastic out of the wheel and then take the wheel off to get at the plastic wound around the axle.
Another time I ran over a fuzzy sock, and my friend laid on the floor cutting away at the fabric until the wheel was released. Was that a time to laugh? To cry? Or to pretend that everyone has problems like mine?
The moment one realizes that a wheelchair is vital is the moment when all dignity is lost. From then on, we fall into the category of “not too smart children.” Doctors ask my driver how I slept the night before and if I’m taking my meds. Too often I am forced to insist, “I am the patient.”
Whenever I leave home, I’m forced to leave my power chair behind and use a transfer wheelchair — one I can’t control and demands that someone push it. At a restaurant after I’d eaten lunch with a friend, I wanted to use the restroom. Because the main restroom was being remodeled, I was pushed to a secondary emergency restroom. The door to the stalls for women was too narrow for my chair, so we chose to use the restroom designed for men. The commode was very low to the floor with no handrails, so after using it I could not stand up. My friend, who is strong, lifted me off the commode and wrestled me into my wheelchair. The men sitting at the nearby bar pretended they couldn’t see me, but I can still imagine their jokes about the old woman who couldn’t get off the toilet in the men’s restroom.
Compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act has made traveling in a wheelchair a bit easier and safer, but there are still hurdles. Even doorways that do not have actual steps often have a small riser that is difficult to navigate. One local bank has large, heavy glass doors with no automatic opener, so whenever I go there, I have to sit outside until someone comes along and opens the door for me.
Arthritis in my arms and shoulders prevents the use of my arms to navigate a normal wheelchair. Without my power wheelchair I would be almost totally isolated, dependent on people to push my wheelchair or visit me in my apartment. With the power wheelchair I can go anywhere I would normally walk, even to nearby businesses.
When you see a wheelchair-using person you can assume that he or she has a handicap of some sort, but often not one more serious than eyes that need glasses or ears that need hearing aids. As individuals grow older and older, more and more people will be wheeling around. We’re part of the landscape now. Enjoy the view.
Award-winning columnist Phyllis Henry lives in Gig Harbor.
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