I have been asked many times in many different settings why I prefer to use a manual wheelchair vs. a powerchair.
Before I answer this question, I should give you a little background about my personal experiences when it comes to the powerchair. For a time, I did use a powerchair because it seemed like a natural progression towards my independence. In theory, I liked the idea. As I got older however, I started realizing that the powerchair had more disadvantages than advantages for me.
The older I get, the tighter my muscles get. When I was younger, I had much more mobility and dexterity throughout my entire left arm (the arm I use to control the joystick for the powerchair). In order for me to use the powerchair, my brain would have to tell my arm to do each movement. But in order to do that, my arm would have to start all the way back in it’s natural position. You see… I do not have fluid motion.
In my home life, this was not an issue because my parents were totally aware of my physical limitations and the control I had as well as and more importantly the understanding of what i was able to do.
School, however, was a different story. They thought that using the powerchair was tantamount to complete independence. In a way, that makes perfect sense, if you are looking at a generalization”¦ which was exactly what they were doing. I felt it was almost as if they were saying what would THEY want to do if THEY were in MY situation.
I tried to explain to them about the physical limitations, they were not buying it. They said all I needed to do was practice. Practice meant that I would navigate the hallways when no one was using them. This did not prepare me for the hallways being filled with over one thousand students. Once the students were in the hallway, this would make my brain have to send signals to my arm that my arm could never execute in a timely fashion.
That’s what cerebral palsy is… your brain can’t send the correct signals to the parts of your body that it wants to do a certain activity. This really had nothing to do with practice. And they didn’t/couldn’t quite understand that. The school saw my stance as being stubborn, lazy and called it “a cop out”. They said, “You MUST use the powerchair.” It was not like that I could say I wasn’t going to use it. I was the student, they were the teacher… you get the idea. Using the powerchair was physically demanding for me.
Let me explain… besides the fact that I couldn’t keep my hand on my joystick (yes, I know how that sounds!), my school was very large and we had only a finite amount of time to get from class to class. No matter what I was doing, I was always going against the proverbial grain in the hallways. So I would get to class late, and I would be so exhausted that I couldn’t participate in class. And Isn’t that why we go to school? To participate in class?
I felt (and still feel this way today) that being able to learn, communicate, and participate both in school AND life is the true definition of independence. In my personal situation, use of the powerchair would not have been a gateway to total or even semi-independence. I needed and still need help doing most physical activities. In a school setting that would include pressing the button for the elevator, writing, opening doors, feeding myself, and going to the bathroom. I had to have someone with me at all times. My logic was (and I think it is pretty sound considering my experience) that if I am going to have someone help me with my school activities and be with me all the time anyway, doesn’t it stand to reason for them to push me so that I would be as fresh as possible to learn and benefit from class? Therefore I’d also be more “independent” later in life with my knowledge.
I know that there are some people who have disabilities that use a powerchair and they really benefit from it. I completely understand their willingness/want to do so.
From a teacher/administrator perspective, I think it is vital to look at someone as an individual. They should be able to see me, listen to me, and know what my limitations are and what realistic goals should be.
In my experience, one size does not fit all. That applies to anybody. I hope this blog helps those in my position or those in academia. All I am doing is offering another perspective to help see the bigger the picture.