Roll with care--avoiding abrupt stops

Posted by Michael Collins in Life After Paralysis on November 24, 2017 # Mobility, Travel

When it comes time to create a list of the greatest inventions in recent history, I would like to nominate the wheelchair for the top of that list. My nomination is made because of the excellent service that wheelchairs have provided to millions of people who otherwise might not be able to get out of bed and participate in society on a regular basis; I know, because I am one of those people.

It has been almost 30 years since I first tried pushing a wheelchair in a rehabilitation ward after my cervical spinal cord injury. The recent loss of much of the use of my shoulders, arms and all of my lower body made my attempts to navigate down the hallways very slow and clumsy. My days using that first manual wheelchair were limited, as it soon became clear that I would need to step up to something more useful for someone with my type of injury.

My first power wheelchair, from Fortress, was much less complex than what I am riding around in today. It did not tilt, elevate or extend the leg supports, and was nowhere near as speedy as what is available in today's rehabilitation marketplace. It also had a few flaws, such as batteries filled with acid that sometimes boiled over when charging and ate holes in my bedroom carpet; there was also the time the front axle fell off the chair while cruising through a shopping mall. The few times that the chair died unexpectedly, leaving me stranded somewhere away from my home or vehicle, were easily forgiven; most of the time I had freedom that I had never expected to enjoy again when I was first injured.

For someone living with paralysis, the wheelchair is one of our most valuable tools, and probably the most expensive. Today's complex rehabilitation technology wheelchairs such as the one that I now use can exceed $30,000 at "retail" prices. That is quite an investment for a vehicle that operates at a top speed of six miles per hour, is useless in loose sand, gravel, ice or snow, and carries only one passenger.

Wheelchairs can also put us in harm's way at times. It is important to remember that these mobility devices are only as safe as the person who operates them.

Certain situations can make us more likely to suffer injury, damage to our equipment or worse. Trains are of special concern, especially for someone who commutes on them or has to cross railroad tracks as part of an accessible route in their communities.

When I lived in Northern Virginia and commuted on Metro trains to reach my office in Washington, DC, I quickly learned that there was often a difference in elevation between the slightly lower station platforms and the floors of the train cars. Such obstacles could block a wheelchair from entering if the foot supports or smaller front casters on the wheelchair struck the door sill.

My solution was to tilt the chair slightly and to take a slight "run" at the open doorway when boarding so I would not find myself stuck halfway into the door when the train started rolling again. It did not take long until I figured out that the first car, directly behind the operator, would be the safest if I ever did get stalled boarding or departing the train.

The other train-related danger involves dangerous gaps found at railroad crossings if necessary for a wheelchair user to cross the tracks. This is especially problematic at the older roadway crossings that are composed of wooden planks, as there is often a large gap that can trap the wheels of a wheelchair or scooter. When that happens it is virtually impossible to extract the chair without outside assistance from someone.

We can minimize the danger involved with operating a wheelchair if we avoid the edges of walkways, boardwalks or piers that overlook or surround dangerous features. Those would include places like the geysers or hot springs at Yellowstone Park, boardwalks on the edges of lakes or swamps, or even the dock at a nearby lake.

Even with the types of dangers that can arise in a moment of inattention, our wheelchairs remain the ideal vehicles for traveling into our living rooms, places of employment or more exotic locations where adventures abound around the world. That ability puts them at the top of the list of valuable inventions, at least as far as I am concerned.

© 2017 Michael Collins

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.