Disability 101: Not everyone who uses a wheelchair is paraplegic
February 12, 2008
Not everyone who uses a wheelchair is paraplegic, and you don’t have to be paraplegic to use a wheelchair. Did I just repeat myself? Not exactly. Let me explain.
Let’s start with the idea that not everyone who uses a wheelchair is paraplegic. I’m not paraplegic, but I often encounter people who assume I am. When I’m shopping in my wheelchair, frequently someone will approach and ask if they can get something off a high shelf for me.
My standard response is, “Thank you, but I can stand.” I don’t mind when people make this offer. There are some folks in wheelchairs who can’t stand and would like such help. Keep in mind, however, that some shoppers in chairs use a device called, creatively enough, a “reacher,” a pole with a hand-operated trigger on one end causing a jaw at the other end to grasp the desired object.
What bothers me is when I say, “I can stand” and my would-be helper stares at me with shocked disbelief. What, a person in a wheelchair who can stand? Can’t be! Sometimes I’m tempted to stand up, throw my arms open wide, and yell, “It’s a miracle! I’m cured!” OK, I’ll refrain.
Not only can I stand, but I can walk some. Just not terribly far. For five minutes or so, I can walk like a normal person and fool everyone. After that, my left leg starts to drag and gets weak. Time to use my cane. At this point, I can still get around some. In fact, on my good days, I sometimes walk around on the shorter trails in our county, like Old Dillon Reservoir or Sapphire Point. I move slowly and my leg drags, but I can get around for a little bit.
However, the amount of time I can walk is limited, and it’s only on good days. With multiple sclerosis, my health and functioning can vary widely. There are good days and bad days. Also, I have trouble thinking and walking at the same time. This can be bad while shopping. I wind up blowing my budget, so I generally use my wheelchair.
Thinking that everyone in a wheelchair is paraplegic leads to the thinking that you have to be paraplegic to use a wheelchair. There is one able-bodied person who has seen me walking, looking normal for a full five minutes, and has decided that there can’t be anything wrong with me. She hasn’t spoken to me for the last nine months because I was once unable to walk a half-a -mile to do an errand. I didn’t have my wheelchair with me and it wasn’t a choice that day. I guess she thinks I was faking it and just trying to get out of the errand. This “all or nothing” thinking, either you must be paraplegic or you must be fine, can cause a lot of problems.
This is the kind of thinking that prevents some people I know with MS from using a wheelchair for activities in which it would be beneficial. They decide that as long as they have any ability to walk, for however short amount of time, they will never use a wheelchair. They are afraid people will see them as more disabled than they are.
They are afraid people will look at them with pity. They’re afraid people will think they’re “faking it” if they use a wheelchair when they can walk a small amount.
So many opportunities are lost then. If I would have been afraid to use a wheelchair, I would have missed out on shopping with my daughter for her prom dress. I wouldn’t have missed that for the world.