Tips For New and Soon To Be Wheelchair Users!
Being in a wheelchair is all I know, but for some people, it’s a huge adjustment. There’s a lot for new wheelchair users to get used to. You have to learn how to move around your surroundings again, and it alters your daily life in so many ways.
After 25 years with Muscular Dystrophy, if there’s one thing I’m qualified to speak on, it’s this! So before I go rambling like I usually do, here are my tips and advice for new or soon to be wheelchair users!
You’re not ‘confined’ or ‘wheelchair bound.’
Your wheelchair will give you freedom and mobility, it’s not something you’re chained to or limited by. Most people grow to view it as an extension of themselves. I know firsthand that your entire experience in a wheelchair shifts when you change the way you view and speak about your disability. Embrace it!
If you can, get solid instead of inflatable tires.
I never get inflatable tires because the thought of popping a tire when I’m not home horrifies me. If you do get inflatable tires, though, make sure you have the tools you need, spares, and an electric pump!
Pick a comfy cushion.
Especially if you’re going to be a full-time wheelchair user, a comfy cushion is important! If you can afford it, I find that inflatable cushions are the best. I use a Roho air cushion that can be locked to hold a certain shape/mold or left unlocked so it squishes around with you as you move. It’s great, but not the cheapest option. Also, if you do have an inflatable cushion and pets (especially cats), take it off your chair or when you’re not using it. Put it where your pets can’t reach. They pop, and it sucks. I learned the hard way. Anyway, there are plenty of other options, just put a little extra thought into which cushion you pick!
Make sure you have tools to adjust your footrests, armrests, headrests, brakes, everything. Keep them handy!
Your chair will get knocked around a lot, and things will come loose. Believe me when I say it sucks to have your footrest basically fall off when you can’t find the tools to fix them.
You don’t have free hands while pushing/driving a wheelchair, so accessories can be a life saver! I have a cheap cup holder (designed for a bike that I found at Target), which has been incredible. Get a backpack that fits the back of your chair well, but don’t keep your wallet in it. You should also get some lights because you’re going to be hard to see from a car, especially at night. Look around, though! There are tons of different things you can get to make your life easier.
Find curb cuts before you start crossing the street.
You might think this isn’t a big deal, but it is. Curb cuts aren’t always where you think they will be and sometimes they aren’t there at all. You don’t want to get stuck in a busy street because for whatever reason the crosswalk doesn’t have a curb cut at the other side. It happens more often than you might think.
Pay attention to what’s on the ground.
This is especially important if you’re using a manual chair. The last thing you want is dog poop, glass, or smashed bugs all over your hands. You can get some fingerless gloves to protect your hands and you should definitely carry hand sanitizer, too. Regardless, it just helps to be aware. As someone who’s driven through cat poop and vomit and accidentally spread it throughout the house, I can promise you it’s both a joy to smell and to clean from the ridges in your tires.
Wheelchairs get really hot.
In the summer, it can get ridiculous. There’s a lot of metal and a lot of black. It heats up fast, so just know that’s a thing when you’re getting dressed and making plans. Those little portable fans on keychains do wonders. Sometimes I keep baby wipes or a washcloth in my backpack if I’m going to be outside all day. I realize not everyone lives in Florida where it feels like you’re living on the sun, but I thought I’d mention it anyway.
Call ahead or have people scope out venues.
People will tell you their building is accessible. For most people that just means there’s a ramp and not necessarily an ADA compliant ramp. Being in a wheelchair will make you painfully aware of steps, narrow doorways, crowded rooms, and tables that are always either too low or too high. Save yourself the hassle and disappointment by doing a little bit of research ahead of time.
Be prepared to speak up, because people will ignore you.
It’s almost never intentional, but when you’re surrounded by people who are standing you’re going to get ignored. It’s hard to hear each other when you’re a few heads shorter than everyone. People get swept up in a conversation without noticing that you’ve missed the last 3 minutes. You’re going to have to get used to speaking up about it!
If you’re in a manual chair, people are going to push you without warning.
Just be prepared for it, and don’t be afraid to tell people to back off. Have your friends keep an eye out for it when you’re out, and be careful. People don’t realize that their ‘helpfulness’ can hurt you.
Your feet stick out in front of you farther than you might think.
I know this sounds obvious and silly, but trust me. I’ve been using a wheelchair since I was too big for a stroller, and sometimes I still forget this. You’re going to crash. Probably a lot at first. You’ll get the hang of it fast, but just be aware of it in the beginning!
Hills, bumps, and cracks in the ground are going to be super noticeable.
There’s not much else to say about this one, it’s just something to keep in mind. It’s probably a good idea to get safety wheels or tippers to just to be safe. My brother broke his nose in school when his chair tipped. Not fun!
People are going to pay too much attention to you.
Get ready for people to talk to you like you’re a child or talk to your friends/family/whoever you’re with instead of you. Strangers will speak really loud and slowly for no reason. People love to stop you so they can say a prayer. They love to ask you ‘what happened’, make jokes about you speeding, and just be weird or rude in general. You’ll get used to it and learn how to ignore it. Just remember that while it mostly comes from ignorance, you’re not obligated to educate anyone. That’s on them. Don’t feel bad to tell people to mind their business.
When you want people to pay attention, they won’t.
It doesn’t matter how loudly you say excuse me, people won’t move. People will actually cut in front of you. Often. Especially moms with strollers. A lot of times if you don’t force your way through, no one will let you through. Maneuvering through a crowd in a wheelchair is a skill, and you’re going to learn it fast.
Being in a wheelchair isn’t as hard or scary as everyone makes it out to be, I promise. You can still be active and live a full life, it just might take a little time to get used to it! If you have any other questions about being in a wheelchair feel free to leave a comment, email me, or message me on any of my social media! Good luck with your new chair! You’re going to be great.