What Is It Like to Use a Wheelchair?

What's it like being in a wheelchair? It's a mixed bag.

Seeing someone in a wheelchair often brings out the best in people. People want to be helpful and accommodating. Of course, this is not a universal and works best if the wheelchair user is nearby in plain view. I have been pumping gas and have had strangers stop me and say that I inspired them. I've been given gifts by strangers.

Tons more people remember me than I remember them. It's like a low level of fame. It also becomes your defining characteristic.

"You know Kimberly?"
"No, I don't think so."
"She's the one in a wheelchair ... "
"Oh, yeah!"

Little kids find your wheelchair incredibly interesting. It makes you smile, because kids are just awesome.

There are still places for which the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA, is just something a baby might say. (Some interesting stories there.)

Before I used a wheelchair, I walked with a limp most places. (I was born with spina bifida.) My mother was angry when I began using a wheelchair in high school, because to her it was like I "gave up." Really, I was just happy to be able to go anywhere I wanted and not worry about getting out of breath too quickly, falling, or being utterly exhausted. My plans became the center focus, not my muscles and aching body.

When you're an adult in a wheelchair, with the life of a competitive graduate student and breaking into the workforce, you have a different worry when the rough patches come: when your dating prospects are slim to none; when you're unable to find something for a boss while you have the flu, and he sets you up to work elsewhere saying that perhaps you just need a less strenuous job; when you have excellent conversations with classmates you see every day in class, and they plan some fun event in front of you and never ask you to come along ...

You wonder sometimes. You wonder how many opportunities you might have missed out on because some people didn't want to bother. You wonder if people just see you as a bit too much trouble, or an inconvenience, to their ways of doing things. If they see you as someone they admire but not enough to be on the same par as they are. You wonder if it's instead just awkwardness and not knowing what to do with someone a bit different that pulls them away. You wonder if it's there at all, because everyone was so nice to you, so you're just overreacting.

And as visible as you might be in some ways, to some people, the truth is that not a lot of people know what it's really like to be you, in that chair, with all the extra things you have to think about and do. Some people probably do resist offering you an opportunity, asking you on a date, including you in their social circle because of the extra baggage you carry.

But I guess that's true of a lot of other people, too.