In two previous articles, I’ve discussed the Wijit, a lever device for moving a manual wheelchair, and written about my experience with the company. At the end of the second article I anticipated seeing the Wijit in action, in a manual wheelchair used by my dad. Things didn’t turn out that way.
In discussing the physical requirements for Wijit use, both the Wijit representative and I missed one crucial detail: Using a wheelchair requires a larger skill set than merely being able to move a joystick or push a rim.
I learned this suddenly and unexpectedly when touching base with my dad’s physical therapist as I was finalizing the date and time for the Wijit demonstration. When she arrived at work after the previous weekend, the therapist discovered a host of reports about troubles my dad was having with his manual wheelchair: getting stuck; backing into walls; jamming the chair forcefully when only finesse could get him out of trouble.
He had had a small stroke, but the new, minor, deficits had not seemed too significant. But now, several weeks later, practical problems were surfacing. My dad was no longer a candidate for a lever-propelled wheelchair, the therapist said. His ability to assess how he is using his wheelchair is too compromised and the new difficulties he is facing offer as much challenge as she feels he can cope with at the moment.
As a walking person, even a relatively aware one, it’s easy to think that a wheelchair, in itself, is a fairly uncomplicated solution to the problem of locomoting-without-legs if the user has upper body strength. Inconvenient, but still generally workable.
Sometimes it really is kind of like that. Around my town, there’s a guy who’s in his early 20s who uses a manual wheelchair. He drives a battered sedan, and after transferring into the driver’s seat, he pulls his chair up and tosses — it looks just about that casual — the chair in to the back of his car. It’s obviously a pain, but it’s also simple, in its way, and clearly totally routine. He gets where he needs to go, and the system works for him.
But this guy is in his 20s, not his late 70s. Whatever damaged his legs apparently hasn’t damaged either his upper body or his brain. My dad’s situation is compromised. His defunct electric chair tells part of the story: it’s missing pieces where he hit things and ripped them off. The foam on the arm rests and the push handles behind the seat has been ripped to shreds. The rubberized coating on the footplate is torn and peeling back, and the chair is generally scarred and scratched after only six months of use.
By the time it was decommissioned, his electric chair was not only battered itself, but had been the source of a lot of other destruction — of furniture, of walls, of my dad’s hands and arms when it was driven unheedingly into objects and railings. Hobbling the speed slowed the motorized chair down, but did not improve my dad’s spatial sense or his ability to stop and figure out what was happening.
When he moved to a manual wheelchair, it looked as if many of these things would no longer be an issue. He couldn’t get up to any speed at all in the manual chair, and there was no joystick to push harder and harder when he got stuck. For a while, the situation really did look better — but not for long.
Things can change so quickly, and the respite from these navigational problems was way too short. My dad is now running into walls with his manual wheelchair; he’s hitting things and mystified when it happens. When a caster catches on a door frame he thinks brute force can solve the problem and risks throwing himself out of the chair when all he needs is a subtle turn to one direction or another.
Using a wheelchair, it seems, is not just a physical skill. It requires judgment, spatial awareness, and a certain amount of finesse, whether a motor is involved or not. Sadly, for some situations, those appealing levers, and the promise they hold for greater physical fitness and autonomy, are not an answer.
Previously: Levers to Drive a Manual Wheelchair