I spent my elementary school years playing outside with my friends. When I was in college, I spent my days as a reporter for the student newspaper, zipping around campus to interview everyone from students to the president of the university. And after I graduated from college, I found myself in the role of newspaper adviser to that same student newspaper.
This sounds like typical life milestones, doesn’t it? But when you’re physically disabled like I am, some of life’s milestones are more difficult — or, sometimes, even nonexistent. Luckily, I’ve been able to live and work with a disability, thanks to some amazing assistive devices, like my electric wheelchair.
I’ve used many electric wheelchairs over the years. I’ve often marveled at what my wheelchairs have meant for my life and have often wondered: “Would I be the person I am today without them?”
I’m pretty sure the answer would be “no,” but maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Because those wheelchairs are so much more than pieces of metal and wire. They were literally my lifeline.
Let me explain.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of my first electric wheelchair. I was born with Freeman-Sheldon syndrome, a genetic bone and muscular disorder. By the time I entered elementary school, I’d had at least a dozen surgeries to correct joint contractures as well as countless hours of physical therapy to help me learn to walk with a walker. I didn’t take my first steps until I was four, so the road to getting me up on my feet was a long, slow process. It was a hard-won victory, but by the time I was in first grade, keeping up with my classmates, especially at recess, became increasingly difficult. My teacher noticed this and gently suggested the idea of an electric wheelchair. As my mother recently told me, we’d worked so hard to get me walking, so she and my father were concerned that a wheelchair would be a step back instead of a step forward. They knew, though, how important it was for me to socialize with my friends, so before long, it was bye-bye, walker, and, hello, electric wheelchair. It was my first set of “wheels,” and I can still remember how happy it made me. Up until then, I’d used a manual push wheelchair, but my new scooter literally opened up a whole new world for me. I could keep up with my classmates, and when you’re young, feeling like you belong is major. I could move freely around the classroom and play fun games like tag on the playground.
For the first time, it felt like the world was within my reach, no longer inaccessible. While my parents worried that a wheelchair might hold me back, it actually propelled me forward — both literally and figuratively. I could now do things on my terms and not have to wait for people to help me. And even though I eventually wore out that first wheelchair (and several more after that), there’s always been one constant over the years: Those wheelchairs gave me freedom and independence. They were the wheelchairs that I walked across the stage in (well, more like rolled) during my high school graduation. They were the wheelchairs that I zoomed down the halls during my first week of college — scared just like my freshmen classmates as we embarked on this next phase of our lives. They were the wheelchairs that helped me do my job on the college newspaper, first as a reporter and then as editor-in-chief.
And after I graduated from college they were the wheelchairs that helped me build a career as a freelance writer and work as an adviser to that same college newspaper. Not only that, but those wheelchairs allowed me to live, as in the actual verb — go shopping, enjoy an afternoon movie, eat out at my favorite restaurant.
I wasn’t just existing. I was living my life, and that was huge. People with disabilities face all sorts of obstacles, so the fact that I’ve been able to build a life for myself is an accomplishment that I’m incredibly proud of. And when you consider that disabled people face more than double the unemployment rate of those without a disability, well, that sense of accomplishment just increases exponentially.
All too often, we’re so quick to say that wheelchairs are “bad,” and even worse, that those who use them are to be pitied. I’ve heard things like, “Oh, I’m so sorry that you’re stuck in that wheelchair.”
Stuck? As in “that wheelchair is holding me back”? When I look back on all I’ve been able to do because I had an electric wheelchair, stuck is the last word I’d use. I literally wouldn’t be who I am without those wheelchairs, and they’ve only added to my life in rich, wonderful ways instead of subtracted from it.
If you’re able-bodied, it’s easy to forget how important something as simple as a wheelchair is to someone with a disability — how essential and life-giving it can be. Over the years, it was my wheelchair that helped me come into my own. Tangible proof, a link between who I was and who I grew up to be — free, independent and thriving.
Melissa Blake is the creator of the blog, So About What I Said, which covers relationships, disabilities, lifestyle, and pop culture, and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Cosmopolitan, and Time, among other publications.