The mental strain of a physical disability

Last week I spent a day in a wheelchair as part of the Wheelchair Sports WA Corporate Wheelchair Challenge. The purpose of the Challenge is to promote awareness of the difficulties faced by those living in a wheelchair, as well as acting as a fundraiser for the charity itself.

Going in to the Challenge I thought I was pretty well prepared, largely as a result of having a son with cerebral palsy and therefore, whilst he is at the high functioning end of the ability spectrum and is not in a wheelchair, I have been surrounded by those with physical disabilities for the last 15 years. And for the last six months or so I have played in a wheelchair basketball league and therefore the thought of being in a wheelchair was not that daunting

The feeling of calm was enhanced as a result of the conversations I was having with colleagues and friends before the day which focused on the physical challenges I would face – manoeuvring the wheelchair through the office, going to the toilet etc. The reality was, however, very different. Yes, the day was very physically demanding and even the slightest incline on my lunchtime trip around the city centre for a sandwich proved to be very problematic and, yes, our office environment is in no way set up to accommodate wheelchairs, be it heavy self-closing doors, unreachable glasses in the kitchen or even unreachable print buttons on the photocopiers. But the lasting impression was the impact the day had on me mentally.

Firstly, being in a wheelchair just made everyday activities hard. Even going to the kitchen to get a glass of water was challenging. It took longer to get to the kitchen from my desk, it was impossible to reach a glass, the tap was at full stretch and then you had to be oh so careful on the way back to avoid spilling the water all over yourself. As a result, I found myself sitting at my desk thinking whether I really was thirsty enough to go through all the effort. There were many examples of this during the day, which lead me to spend far more time at my desk than normal. The result was I had a far lonelier day than usual missing out on all the human interactions that usually occur as I go about day-to-day activities. I didn’t like that.

Next were the frustrations. I would like to think I am generally a calm and tolerant person, but being in a wheelchair is inherently frustrating. Whether it be pointless doors that need to be navigated: off-camber paths, others using the disabled toilets, narrow corridors, and the general lack of awareness of others. It didn’t take much to draw a muttered curse. I didn’t like that either.

The impact being in a wheelchair had on others was also very interesting. It really seemed to polarise people. Some people were happy to help out when needed and others literally looked the other way. Some were very interested in what I was doing and keen to learn about my experiences and feelings. Other who I have known for many years, just didn’t know how to deal with me being in a wheelchair and largely seemed to avoid me for most of the day. Interestingly I couldn’t have predicted who would have fallen into which camp. The latter group of people, ‘the avoiders’, really got to me and started me thinking about what it would be like had the wheelchair been for life and not just for the day. I think it would have impacted the way I view the world and am pretty sure it would have caused me to spend less time out and about as being surrounded by awkwardness is not very nice. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that it takes a huge effort for those with any kind of disability to leave their front door.

But it wasn’t all bad news. I took an immense amount of satisfaction out of overcoming even the smallest obstacle. From how to deal with self –closing doors (open the door as far as you can before jamming the wheelchair in the gap and pushing like mad!) to negotiating a step and getting to the top of a hill. I found that overcoming the struggle made the struggle worthwhile. The various random acts of kindness shown by strangers to stop me toppling off the path or picking up the change I dropped also put a smile on my face.

And so at the end of the day I came to the conclusion that if this had been for real, had I had an illness, an accident or other trauma that meant I needed to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair, I would need someone to help me overcome the mental struggle. To stop me becoming insular and isolated, to stop me thinking it was all too hard and to help me overcome the frustrations. I would also need something new that I could master, some new skill that I could work on, become good at and overcome the obstacles.

And if I had that, I think I would be OK

Matthew Popham is a board member of Wheelchair Sports WA


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