This photo is of a wooden wheelchair from the early part of the 20th century.
What do you see? Oak planks fashioned into a back, seat, and leg rests? Do you see the
caning insets that give this utilitarian vehicle a flair that is mindful of craftsmanship long
past? Or maybe you see the engineering of this chair and how similar it is to wheelchairs
now, almost a hundred years later.
Wheelchairs in the hospital, in the ‘50s, were much like the one depicted
here–large, so large for a tiny four year old or seven, eight, nine, ten, or eleven year old.
Children’s sizing was not yet in vogue. The chairs were wide and wooden but piled with
pillows under your bottom, behind your back, as well as under the cast so it wouldn’t
bounce on the upraised wooden leg rest.
Having had a relationship with wheelchairs since I was four years old has
certainly given me experiences that most of you reading this have not had. Has anyone
ever spoken very loudly to you as though you are hard of hearing because you sit in a
wheelchair? Or has a clerk ever asked if you needed her to read “the tag” to you since
being in wheelchair surely means you’re either blind or can’t read. Experiences,
perceptions, strangers, disabilities—mine and others’, all shape a reality for each of us
that cannot be compared to or the same as any other individual.
In 1952, the polio epidemic had been hitting hard all over the US, even in the
remote UP of Michigan where I was raised after being born in Cadillac. It was in
Marquette, Michigan, at St Luke’s Hospital that my first experience in wheelchair life
occurred. I have memories of wheelchairs, braces, crutches, learning to walk six times
over during my childhood but learning to skip once, just before I turned four, stands out
as one of my very first remembrances of family and fun.
The day I learned to skip was such a momentous and memorable occasion for me.
My dad’s oldest sister whom he revered and respected so much was visiting our family. I
was three, just a few weeks before polio hit. Our family was going for a walk and as we
walked toward our destination, my aunt started skipping and I was fascinated. I tried to
mimic her but was awkward until she slowed her step to show me the skip. Then I did it!
And did it and did it and did it. It was the first activity I remember consciously thinking
that I could no longer do when I came home from the hospital with braces and crutches. I
remember being sad about that.
I see myself in the chair, in the photo, as a small child, not knowing what hit me,
but knowing that my reality had changed. Besides realizing that I could no longer skip, I
didn’t think much about that reality shift except for wanting to keep up with all the
neighborhood kids, once I could walk again after each hospital stay which averaged
anywhere from 4-9 months at a time, with holiday passes home. At the hospital we were
all in wheelchairs, none of us were anyone special. Back home, I was the lone kid in a
wheelchair, or afterwards, in braces, demanding acceptance while trying to fit in and be
The reality that can’t be seen by strangers or even other children comes from an
invisible effort—requiring affirmation of our total selves while determined to become
part of what society considers possible, rational, and reasonable. Initially, the chair
becomes who you are. It takes an honest and compassionate person to see past a
disability to the person sitting in wheelchair. And I don’t mean to imply that all of us in
wheelchairs are honest and compassionate as we observe the rest of you.
I wonder who sat in this wheelchair in the photo? It could have been a senior in
high school in 1934 who was a virtuoso in the choir, destined for life long successes on
the operatic stage, who succumbed to the poliovirus. She would have been stranded at
home, possibly having a teacher come for lessons. High schools in the early part of the
20th century were laden with steps—outside as well as inside. The teen in a wheelchair at
that point in time would have been isolated but for immediate family, and friends who
usually dwindled in the swirl of their own life’s activities.
Maybe it was a veteran of World War II who had lost a leg in battle. He’d be
dumbfounded as to how he was going to live in a wheelchair when he had fields to plow
and livestock to feed and tend when he got back home. He just couldn’t imagine that this
was his new reality, partly because he already knew that persons in wheelchairs just sat in
the house or on the porch being tended to and visited with, sleeping in a downstairs room
while everyone else slept in bedrooms upstairs.
Sleeping downstairs became the norm for me in 1989. I missed going upstairs in
my parents’ house to sleep in the bedroom that was reserved for me when I visited. Now
I was relegated to the den off the living room that was actually the forgotten storage room
of the house even though there were a desk and bookshelves there. It just wasn’t the
same. Upstairs was a neat organized room with curtains and dresser and familiar linens
on the bed. Downstairs was comfortable enough but still a concession to not being able
to walk up the stairs.
The last time I was in a wheelchair as a child, I was eleven years old and grew
four inches during those six months. The wheelchair I used then, in the early ‘60s, had
changed from the vintage wooden chair of the photograph and hospital. Now it had a soft
seat and back with metal sides but still had spokes on the wheels. The leg rests were
covered in the wonderful new synthetic material, naughahyde, which actually meant
vinyl and was blue. Four inches taller now, I walked with a long leg brace through
adolescence, high school, college, and then as a young adult embarking on a teaching
career, always trying to keep up physically or try harder intellectually.
During my 30s, a rehab doctor mentioned that the discovery of Second Syndrome
Polio would probably land me in a chair. Never having felt like I ever fit any mold, I
rather dismissed it but then decided to plan it for my early fifties when I could retire from
teaching and go on to a second career. I decided being a court reporter would be a fine
sitting down job if one had to be confined to a wheelchair. I could take classes sitting
down, I could get into a courthouse that had to be accessible, and I could sit for the job.
It seemed so neat and tidy.
And so it arrived, Second Syndrome Polio, in my early 40s. I bought a house,
took a new teaching job, and went into a wheelchair for the rest of my life, all in the same
month. This time the wheelchair wasn’t wooden with cane inserts, not soft seated nor too
large for me. Aluminum pipe made up the frame’s construction and with custom seating,
I was sitting in a comfortable chair that rolled easily with knobby tires and a covered
gripping rim to save wear and tear on my hands. However, the fancy wheelchair could
not stop me from claiming loss of memory due to shock, October through December of
1989. I was in year nineteen of my teaching career and was dumbfounded that I would
not be walking through the next eleven years or beyond. Nor would I be walking up the
steps of my new house or anyone else’s for that matter.
Teaching middle school children became my forte and the last eleven years
certainly proved to be some of the most rewarding as I learned to know myself in a
wheelchair and made it clear to students and other relationships that the chair was not the
person. Many lessons were derived from this simple fact that I could apply to so many
adolescent situations. Middle school kids are compassionate and hungry to know who
they are but most of all adaptable when they have the facts—we all did fabulously
Do you think you could adapt to life in a wheelchair in the 21st century? They are
now made with aluminum or titanium, light as a feather. Or they come motorized and are
heavy as a small car and need a van with a lift to transport. But those are only the chairs.
The only reason wheelchairs exist is for the persons who can no longer walk on two feet.
It sort of doesn’t matter what the chairs are made from, does it? What does matter is our
perception of strangers we see in wheelchairs as we go about our busy daily lives.
You have probably seen professional people in wheelchairs in the 21st century as
well as homeless people. Each of them has a story of life and perceptions—theirs
towards you and yours toward them. One of them might be an extraordinary potter who
lives off the pittance she makes selling her wares at street art fairs. One could be a dad
who walks his daughter to school every day—he rolls, she walks—walk and roll, if you
Currently, I have been living in a wheelchair for the past 23 years. I could not
have predicted that living life from a wheelchair would be at worst isolating but at best
liberating. I have the liberty to be who I am with the added bonus of learning some
valuable life lessons about personhood and perceptions. Those of you who have not been
fortunate enough to live life from a chair, check your perceptions. Then smile with
yourself and at the rest of us.