When I was younger and you mentioned the word wheelchair to me I would put my fingers in my ears and say lalalalala until you finally gave up. The idea of a wheelchair really turned me off. I couldn't possibly be old or infirm enough to actually need a wheelchair (even though I did have RA).
Until I did, after my hip surgery. You can read about that here. Then the last time I traveled alone I knew that I would need help, I decided to use the wheelchair assistance they offer through the airlines. I always end up walking to the last terminal whenever I fly and if you know United at O’Hare you know that’s a heck of a long walk. The service was ok on the O’Hare side but when I got to Arizona I had a woman who was more disabled than I was pushing me around. The whole time I wanted to tell her to stop and jump in the chair and I would push her where she needed to go, one of my more humbling experiences of disability. I felt like a complete heel and ended up doing the walk myself when I got back into Chicago. I was horrified and told myself that I would never use the service again.
It's been 4 years since I've last traveled, my health has gotten worse and I knew that there was no way I was going to be able to do O’Hare walking. I sheepishly booked a wheelchair again and thought "oh please, don’t let anyone call me out for looking totally normal and using the wheelchair" (isn't it sad that we have to worry about these things, someone always has to take advantage). I checked my bag in with the skycap, he looked at me askance and asked, “you need a wheelchair?” My first thought "here we go." I answered ,"yes" and was ready for a fight but thankfully he said, “ok, go sit over there.”
The wheelchair man walked by me the first time because I guess I look that normal (but you don’t look sick, right). When I finally got up and grabbed him he very nicely shuffled me into the chair and gave me the ride of my life (mind out of the gutter, people). I don’t know about the rest of you but I’m a tipper and this guy really worked for his tip. He took me over to be checked in with the services department (making sure that they had actually given me the service that I had requested). He took me through security and all but carried me through which was quite amazing, boxed my stuff for me, let me sit to take my shoes off. The only thing I was required to do was stand with my hands over my head (and I’m pretty sure that if he somehow could have managed to do that for me he would have). He held a stream of polite conversation the whole way there. He told me about the dinosaur, Sue. He asked if he could stop and get coffee or a magazine for me. Truly, a delightful experience all the way down to getting me settled in the closest chair to the entrance to the plane. When it was over I felt almost as if it was a luxury instead of something I usually feel ashamed about. He made me feel pampered instead of injured or less than. I think it was truly one of my best disabled moments, funny how that works, huh?
I used to be so embarrassed to ask for help, especially for wheelchair kind of help. I learned after my hip surgery that wheelchairs were just like any other tools that I use to make having RA easier. I use a flat piece of plastic to help me open jars, I used a knee walker for my foot surgery. I never could figure out my aversion to wheelchairs but it was strong. Now for the second time I find myself thinking of it as a tool to help me be able to travel, which I love.
The part I didn't bargain for, was a lovely experience due to using something that usually embarrasses me since it calls out that I’m not perfect, or normal. Instead when I sat my body in that chair I felt like I was treated as royalty simply because I was disabled (how many times can you say that happens). I think the universe is trying to tell me that I need to get over myself and just admit sometimes I need help, and if it opens up my ability to travel and experience new things then a wheelchair isn't punishment, it's privilege.
Lene Andersen wrote a short story about when she was given her "new set of wheels". When she got her chair she didn't feel as if it was punishment, she chose to look at it as a way out, a way too get to things and do things that she hadn't done in years while she was stuck in a hospital bed unable to walk. I've read this story many times and while I understood why, I've never quite gotten it, I don’t think we can really relate to something we haven’t experience ourselves, we can agree but never quite know. It’s the you don’t "get it" until you "get it" theory.
When I wrote about my first experience with my wheelchair, Lene was happy that I was trying to change the perception of what using a wheelchair is like. Admit it, wheelchair = punishment for a lot of us. What if we decided that wheelchair = new experiences, new places to explore, a chance to meet a wonderful helper who treats you nicely instead of like a lazy malingerer. When I told Lene that I also use a wheelchair at the airport she suggested that I write about it. I had planned on it but who would have guessed the kind of service I would be receiving.
So here I am writing, now please don’t get me wrong, not every wheelchair ride is going to go down like this (on my return trip from LAX I was asked if I really couldn't walk, this with a boot on my foot). I've had rides where they put me in the chair and don’t speak to me the whole time, which is fine they still get me where I’m going. What a lovely way to start my traveling experience by having a nice conversation with an airline employee, especially when he saved me about 5000 steps.
When he got me to my gate I turned and said to him, “thank you, you have no idea how much I appreciate your help. You being able to do the walking for me helps me to be able to travel again and I’m so thankful to be able to do that.” He replied, “this is why we have this service so when you get to your destination hopefully you won’t have to spend the first day of your vacation recovering.” Seriously, he was that good. I happily tipped him and watched him go on his merry way. I then picked my jaw up off the floor and settled in to wait for boarding.
I hope by writing this blog post more people will realize that options are out there and that just because we may use a wheelchair to get us through the hard parts like traveling it doesn't mean that we will use them all the time. I think the idea is that if plop our behind in one once, we will never get out of them, it's that slippery slope. I have found that isn't the case, I have a wheelchair in my closet and I haven't used it since my surgery. That said, I know if I need it to make my life easier it's there, the same as using the convenience at the airport. We have to get past the "oh my goodness, it's a wheelchair" and look at it like it's a tool. If you break your foot you would use crutches because you can't walk and crutches help you to walk. We need to get past that a wheelchair means I'm seriously disabled. It doesn't, it means you're seriously smart for taking advantage of a way to make things easier on yourself so you can do the things you really love to do.
The next time you're traveling, use the wheelchair service and save yourself some steps. Think about how you feel when you're in the chair, I'll bet its a lot less horrifying or scary than you think it will be. If you do give it a try, let me know what you think. I have heard so many different things from people from the horrifying experiences where they question your illness to the same situation that I had last week.
I hope your travels are happy, fun and fulfilling, but mostly I hope before you get to your destination you will save yourself some steps and not have to spend the first day of your vacation recuperating. I also hope that your experience was as good as mine. Good luck and Happy Trails!!
If you would like to read more by Lene Andersen (and you should) you can read about her two books, Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis:Tools for Management, Side Effects and Pain and 7 Facets:A Meditation on Pain, here.