Opening my eyes to life in a chair

They say you should never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. That’s why I found myself in a wheelchair yesterday — although I wasn’t going to judge but merely try to understand.

I don’t suggest that spending a morning in a wheelchair can duplicate the struggles faced by the estimated 40,000 Canadians living with a spinal cord injury. But there were two reasons for briefly trading legs for wheels.
First, it’ll spread the word about London’s second annual Rick Hansen Wheels in Motion fundraiser, scheduled for June 13 at Parkwood Hospital.

Similar events are planned the same day in St. Thomas and Woodstock. (Check online at for details.)

And second, it was designed to be an eye-opener.

My eyes started widening moments after organizers dropped the wheelchair at The Free Press staff entrance. Because although I could get through the door, I was then faced with two paths into the newsroom — and both featured a six-step staircase.

Those steps came to mind later when I talked to Chris Fraser, co-chairperson of the Rick Hansen Wheels in Motion London event committee.

Fraser, who has been using a wheelchair since an accident 16 years ago, laughed when I mentioned the small but seemingly insurmountable steps.

“Sometimes I’ll call up a restaurant or a store and ask, ‘Are you wheelchair-accessible?’ ” she said. “And they’ll say, ‘Oh yes — we just have three stairs at the front.’ ”

It’s the little things.

Although there are two automatic doors at the Free Press main entrance, the button is right beside the door.

It was easy to roll close and push the button, but that meant the wheelchair was also close enough to block the door as it swung outward.

I started to understand what Fraser meant when she said, “Everyday, you’re strategizing.” Because at every turn, my path was blocked by desks, chairs, cords and garbage bins.

Even the simplest act — like heading to the cafeteria for a coffee — required a scheme. After getting my cup of joe, I realized the plastic tops were stored around the corner. I had two choices — either balance the brimming cup between my legs as I rolled to where the tops were kept, or leave my coffee on the counter, grab a top and then return.

I opted for No. 1 and managed, thankfully, to avoid scalding any sensitive parts.

I rode the elevator down to the main floor, but then faced with a heavy, outward-opening door, opted to wait for help.

In the next few hours, I managed to smash my hand against a desk and back into the leg of a passerby. I made it into the library, but quickly realized I couldn’t reach anything on the upper shelves. It was academic, anyway, because my path was blocked by a stepladder.

I could — just barely — reach a water fountain in the hall. But because the faucet was now shoulder-high, I had to approach it from the side, which meant the water dribbled down my chin and onto my shirt.

There were also subtly demeaning aspects. In the wheelchair, my perspective now resembled that of a child’s — I constantly peered up at people and things. And like a child, I was often forced to ask for help.

Within an hour, my hands hurt from gripping the wheel rims. Within three hours, my left shoulder ached.

I rolled into the building’s wheelchair-accessible washroom but found no way to manoeuvre the chair between the toilet and facing wall.

Later, Fraser inspected the washroom and declared it unsafe and not practical. She said the toilet was too low, the seat too loose (wheelchair users often rock back and forth to get in and out of their pants or dress), and the wall-mounted grab-bar was positioned too far forward to provide enough leverage for a wheelchair user to hoist themselves up.

Last year’s local Wheels in Motion event raised $12,000. But more money is needed — for everything from building accessible washrooms, buildings and playgrounds to supporting wheelchair sports, managing chronic pain, treating over-use injuries and, ultimately, finding a cure.

Oh, and opening eyes.

“You want people to see you,” said Fraser. “And not your chair.”

Ian Gillespie, Free Press Columnist

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