A History of Wheelchairs

When I was about 10 years old, I started using a wheelchair to help me get around every day. The joint damage from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, difficulty with, and pain of walking had begun significantly limiting how far I could travel on my own power.

So it became apparent that I needed assistance with my mobility. I used a wheelchair to get around school and when my family would go out, but not at home where the distances were short and I could sit for rest breaks.

My wheelchairs tell a story of my life

Leading up to this period, it was harder and harder for me to get through my day. I had to borrow a wheelchair at places like the mall, or even my school because I couldn’t do all that walking. I remember planning out the steps between classrooms and thinking about where I could sit and rest.

As I look back, I realize the history of my wheelchairs tells a story of my life. It reveals my change in mobility, but also how technologies have developed and have supported an active life. I’m so grateful to have had these wheelchairs and to be able to explore the world with them.

My first wheelchair: the maroon cruiser

My first wheelchair was more like a large-sized stroller. It folded up like one, with the small wheels folding up and the back folding down. The seat was maroon-colored and I loved that it looked unique. Typically, I would sit in it and peddle my feet to get around or a friend would push me from class to class.

A standard manual wheelchair with a blue frame

My next wheelchair was a standard manual one. The big reason I needed a new chair was because I had grown and the maroon one wasn’t comfortable anymore. The new chair had a blue frame and armrests that were like curved tubes. One end fitted into place behind me and then it curved up to support my arms. Since they just set inside and didn’t attach, it was humorous when someone tried to lift the chair by the armrests and was surprised when they just came out!

I also pedaled around in this chair with my feet. I remember working up quite the sweat going down the long hall of my middle school backward (as that was easier and generated more speed with my legs), as I periodically glanced behind to make sure I wasn’t going to run into anything.

A motorized chair for the next phase of life

The blue manual wheelchair lasted awhile but, as I prepared for high school graduation and going to college, we decided that I needed a motorized wheelchair. Backpedaling around a college campus (and possibly up and down hills) was just not going to be practical. It was a life changer! It became so much easier to get around when I didn’t have to propel myself with my JRA legs.

Having a backup

My first two motorized wheelchairs were pretty much identical. They were awesome! They were built like tanks and could withstand almost anything (except airlines!). In fact, my second motorized chair (purchased in my final semester of college when I was preparing to move out on my own and start my first job) is still with me in a corner of my home. I rarely use it, but I know in a pinch I can turn it on and it will get me around. (It actually has outlasted a couple of newer wheelchairs because it was so well built.)

Nowadays, I try to keep my next most recent wheelchair as a back-up that I use periodically to keep it running and the batteries alive. But I still have my old, old chair (nicknamed ‘The Tank’) in case I need it.

Replacing ‘The Tank’

I really didn’t know any better, but I kept ‘The Tank’ too long and should have replaced it sooner. I had it for more than 10 years (actually, I think significantly longer than that) when the usual replacement time for wheelchairs is five years. But it worked so well and was so reliable that it didn’t occur to me that I could get a replacement.

Finally, as its age was really showing and I realized I may be more comfortable in a newer wheelchair, I went through the process for the first time on my own to get a new chair. It was exciting to see the technological changes and how mid-wheel drive (where the motorized wheels are located directly under the seat instead of slightly behind) could make the tightness of my turns much smaller. I learned the joy of squeezing into smaller spaces! Unfortunately, time revealed that the wheelchair was a dud—requiring a lot of repairs, lots of money, and constant wheel replacements.

A newer version of old reliable

In my next chair, I returned to old reliable — only the newer version. And that wheelchair served me so well that six fast years passed before I remembered to find a new wheelchair. In fact, it was so great that when an older backup wheelchair was totaled by an airline and they had to replace it, I had them replicate that chair.

Now that I’ve had my newest wheelchair for a few weeks, I am really appreciating the improvements. It is slightly smaller with a terrifically tight turning ability. The arms flip up and the control box flips in and out (for pulling up to my desk or a table). While it always takes a little time to adjust to a new wheelchair, I think I’ll be very comfortable and maneuverable for another five years. Here’s to hitting the road in style!

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