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Interacting with people who use mobility aids

Probably the most recognisable form of Disability is physical. Yes, it is absolutely true! People using crutches, a wheelchair or some other mobility assistive equipment are almost always immediately identified as having a disability. The question is, is it always true? In most cases, yes it is, however, the severity of the disability is what is mostly misunderstood. Just because a person may be using a wheelchair does not mean they are totally unable to walk. It may simply mean that their physical limitation may not allow them to walk for long distances so they may use the aid of a wheelchair.

Before we go into why people use wheelchairs and how to interact with them, maybe we should examine the more common types of physical limitations.

People use wheelchairs as a result of a variety of disabilities, including spinal cord injury, Multiple Sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, arthritis, cerebral palsy and polio. Wheelchairs provide mobility for people with paralysis, muscle weakness, lack of co-ordination, nerve damage, and/or stiffness of joints. Let’s examine these various types of disabilities.

The spinal cord is a long, thin, tubular bundle of nerves that is an Extension of the Central Nervous System from the brain and is enclosed in and protected by the bony vertebral column, commonly known as the spinal column.

The main function of the spinal cord is to transmit instructions from the brain to various parts of the body through sensory and Motor nerves in the nervous system.

If an individual experiences brain or spinal trauma because of a vehicular accident, a fall, gunshot, diving accident and/or domestic abuse, or tumours and/or cancers, the transmission to and from the brain is interrupted, removing the individual’s ability to react to common discomforts and in some cases even control of their physical lives. Names used to describe spinal cord irregularities include:

Hemiplegia: A condition in which one-half (left or right) of an individual’s body is paralysed

Paraplegia: Impairment in motor and/or sensory function of the lower extremities (legs). Affected individuals usually have full use of their arms and hands.

Quadriplegia: Paralysis affecting all four limbs, although not necessarily total paralysis or loss of function

Spina bifida: A condition occurring at birth in which some part of the spinal column is not completely fused allowing for nerve damage. Since the condition usually occurs in the lower spinal column, an individual does not usually have mental developmental impairments.

Multiple sclerosis (MS): A condition in which the immune system attacks the central nervous system, negatively affecting the ability of nerve cells in the brain, causing impairment in sensation, movement, cognition, or other functions depending on which nerves are involved. It is more common in women.

Cerebral palsy (CP): CP is caused by damage to the motor control centres of the young developing brain and can occur during pregnancy (about 75 per cent), during childbirth (about five per cent) or after birth (about 15 per cent) up to about age three. It is a non-progressive disorder, meaning the brain damage does not worsen, but secondary orthopaedic difficulties are common. People affected by CP may have speech impairment as well, but cognitive development is not usually affected.

Muscular dystrophy: Refers to a group of genetic, hereditary muscle diseases that cause progressive muscle weakness. Muscular dystrophies are characterised by progressive skeletal muscle weakness, defects in muscle proteins, and the death of muscle cells and tissue.

People affected by the listed situations invariably use wheelchairs or some other mobility assistive equipment. Wheelchairs are the most common engines of mobility that come in many sizes and shapes that are usually adapted to the lifestyle of the user. Most people who use wheelchairs encounter environmental and attitudinal barriers that affect their lives on a daily basis. Wheelchair users are people, not equipment. Don’t lean over someone in a wheelchair to reach for something, or ask that person to hold things for you. Don’t set your drink (or anything else) on the desktop attached to someone’s wheelchair.

If the conversation continues for more than a few minutes, consider sitting down in order to share eye level. It is uncomfortable for a seated person to look straight up for a long time. If that’s not possible, stand at a slight distance, so that they aren’t straining their neck to make eye contact with you.

Don’t park your car in an accessible parking place. These places are reserved out of necessity, not convenience. The space is wider than usual in order to get wheelchairs in and out of the vehicle more easily. Don’t push or touch a person’s wheelchair without permission; it’s part of their personal space. If you help someone down a curb without waiting for instructions, you may dump them out of their chair. Offer assistance if you wish, but do not insist. If a person wants or needs help, they will accept your offer and tell you exactly what will be helpful.

People who use wheelchairs, crutches and other mobility aids generally are able to do things for themselves, and thanks to some wonderful innovations in technology and science, people with physical challenges are able to achieve a lot more than before. For instance, I write these weekly articles using voice recognition software on a computer without the assistance of anyone, unless the computer freezes. That has something to do with the Windows operating system, not my physical limitation!

One of the biggest barriers opposing people with physical disabilities is transportation. As we discussed earlier, some people using wheelchairs are able to independently move but others cannot. Almost everyone who uses a wheelchair prefers not to be lifted by someone else. They would much prefer to be transported sitting in their wheelchairs than to be lifted into a vehicle, especially if there is not enough room to manoeuvre.

DPI NAC invites individuals and/or organisations to submit articles of information for inclusion in this column. Remember, KNOWLEDGE IS POWER!

MARK YOUR CALENDARS: The International Day of People with Disabilities (IDPD) is celebrated on 3 Dec., every year. This year’s theme is “Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: Dignity and justice for all of us”.

Mr. Leslie A. Emanuel is the regional development officer of Disabled Persons’ International North America and the Caribbean (DPI NAC), a non-profit organisation that advocates for the rights of people with disabilities in 14 countries across the region through its national assemblies, and regional office located in Antigua and Barbuda.

by Leslie A. Emanuel

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