Lesser-known things about being a wheelchair user

A man using a crutch and getting up out of his wheelchair Image copyright Thinkstock

While every wheelchair user is unique, whether self-propelled, powered or pushed by someone else, there are aspects of life on wheels that they can all identify with. Below are five things that wheelchair users know but others perhaps don't.

It's a miracle!

If you've ever seen someone stand up from a wheelchair and walk, don't assume you've just witnessed a miracle or a Blue Badge fraudster.

It's not uncommon for people who can move their legs to use wheels to get around some or all of the time. There are a multitude of reasons for this, pain, fatigue or muscle weakness to name just three.

Twenty-one-year-old part-time wheelchair user Bethan Griffith-Salter has been called a fraud on numerous occasions for folding away her wheelchair and walking. She says she feels angry that she is expected to give details of her medical condition to strangers who challenge her about having a chair when she is able to walk.

"The biggest thing to remember is this: if you do not know the person," she says, "then why they use a wheelchair is none of your business."

Bums in faces

Unless they own a whizzy model that can elevate them, the face of a wheelchair user is at a different level to those of people who are upright. For ex wheelchair athlete Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, this is most noticeable when travelling "at crotch level on the tube" and "having someone's bottom in my face that wobbles about when the train moves".

Griffith-Salter says being lower-down makes her feel claustrophobic when she can't get through a crowd or see in front of her. She says "sitting" in busy places can be dangerous. "I have been hit on the head many times by shopping bags ... and people have come straight at me with cigarettes."

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Advice: Never push without asking permission first

Wheelchair etiquette

"I was in canary wharf," says Baroness Grey-Thompson, "when someone came up behind me and asked me if I needed a push. I said no, and then they pushed me anyway. I was really shocked that they didn't listen to my answer."

The general consensus is that one should never push a wheelchair without express permission from the owner, even if they aren't currently sitting in it.

Other points of etiquette include not walking behind the wheelchair user, and never leaning on the back of someone's chair or using it as a trolley. Griffiths-Salter says you should think of a wheelchair "as part of the user's body".

"Decent wheelchairs are expensive"

Wheelchairs sold in big retail stores for under £100 tend to be one size fits all. They might work fine for occasional days out with Grandma but for those who use theirs regularly, only a bespoke wheelchair will do. These are a lot more expensive, often running into the thousands. For example, at the top end, Paralympic-grade sports wheelchairs can cost as much as £50,000.

Dave Hawkins runs Cyclone Mobility, has a spinal injury and uses a wheelchair himself. He says that the key considerations when choosing a chair are "weight, then functionality, and then aesthetics". The lightest wheelchairs available nowadays are made from carbon fibre.

Hawkins says there are critical health considerations when customising a wheelchair for a client. The position of the footplates, seating angle and backrest position, determine posture and whether you get pressure sores, a common and dangerous problem. "Shoulders rounded and neck going forward can result in massive costs for the NHS," he says.

Aesthetically, he says that women and men want slightly different things from their wheelchairs.

"This is a generalisation but I find that ladies want something more colourful and en vogue, like anodised purple sections on it to match their nail polish." He says men tend to treat customising a chair a bit more like they would a car, choosing the most up to date materials and engineering for an improved performance.

The joke's on you

"If you think you've just come up with the world's funniest gag about wheelchairs, keep it to yourself. I can assure you we've heard them all and we only smile pitifully to make you feel less awkward," says Shannon Murray.

The wheelchair-using model and presenter says the gags are so poor and so regular that she can't remember them word for word, but that they always run along similar lines.

"If I'm in a bar and I'm holding a drink there is usually someone who makes a joke about drink driving. I used to use a chair made by 'Quickie' so that would lead to hilarious comments about jumping on board for a quickie or taking me for a spin around the block." Speeding jokes, she says, are also common.

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