]Image description: A black stick figure sitting in a black wheelchair made up entirely of a heart. Image source]
I was introduced to the idea of using an electric wheelchair for the first time when I was 14 years old. The general consensus was that I would not have enough stamina to get through the day on my feet when I started high school, so this experience sought to teach me how to use one before I would start high school that fall.
I was very resistant to the idea. I used my walker to help me get around almost always up until that point. I thought I got around perfectly fine on my feet. I thought wheelchairs were only for people weak enough to use them. In my mind, I was not that weak person, and I never would be. I thought that walking was better than using a wheelchair, and I didn’t ever want to be “confined” to a wheelchair. I thought that agreeing to use a wheelchair would be giving up on my dream to walk independently, and I held onto that very tightly.
I fought every therapist who came to my school and suggested I use a wheelchair. My memory is fuzzy, but I resisted using a wheelchair until I wasn’t given a choice anymore. This made me even more resistant because I was being forced to use this thing I neither needed nor wanted. The first time I trialled the wheelchair at school, I remember being so embarrassed to use it in front of my classmates that I asked my therapist go in the classroom ahead of me and “introduce” it before I made my appearance. My classmates were all supportive and interested in my new “ride”, but I remember feeling ashamed and wanting to hide.
I continued to trial out that wheelchair until I got my own over the summer. I was disappointed that the purple colour I chose for it looked more like a blue, and I didn’t like it at all. I still fought to use my walker all throughout high school because I truly thought I was better off my feet than using my wheelchair. I remember being thrilled when my wheelchair would break down because that meant I could use my walker for a few days while it was repaired. On those days, I was so happy. I felt like myself again. I was proving all those therapists who said I couldn’t do it wrong—I was doing it, and it didn’t matter that I was exhausted at the end of the day.
I opted to use my walker instead of my wheelchair at my high school graduation, and the amount of walking and standing (for pictures after the ceremony) put a huge strain on my body. I remember feeling like my knees were breaking with every step I took (after I reached the end of my stamina) and my legs hurt for days afterward while I recovered. I finally came to terms with the fact that my body did not work like it used to, and the reasons behind my wheelchair use finally made sense.
It was to preserve my energy. By not using energy to walk, I was able to have enough energy to do everything else I needed to do. Then I was introduced to the idea of ableism through my friend Tonia’s blog, and my attitudes behind wheelchair use made sense and began to change. Walking is no better than using a wheelchair, and more importantly, choosing to walk does not make me a better person. True, I felt more like myself when I walked, but in reality, I was still the same person if I used my wheelchair. Using a wheelchair does not make me weak; it actually gives me strength because I am able to use my energy for the things I need to do instead of wasting it all getting from one place to another. I do not feel confined to my wheelchair because it is not attached to me and I can get in and out of it as I please.
It wasn’t until I started university that I truly started to love my wheelchair. It gave me so much freedom. I could go from building to building instead of being restricted to one like I would be if I used my walker. I could get to all my classes on time—and have enough energy to manage a full course load (and work as a teaching assistant). I had so much autonomy—not only because I was an adult, but also because my wheelchair allowed me to go anywhere I wanted. I felt I gained a new sense of independence that I never had before in my life, and I still cherish that every day.
Of course, I face difficulties and barriers when using my wheelchair, but the pros far outweigh the cons for me. I believe we need to change the narrative around wheelchairs. They shouldn’t be looked at in terms of confinement, but instead through a lens of liberation and independence.