My insurance company will cover a new wheelchair every six years. I’m guessing they didn’t just pull that number out of thin air—although it wouldn’t surprise me—but I’m sure there was some research that found a wheelchair’s life expectancy to be about six years. Imagine if that was your job: find out how much damage this wheelchair can take before it falls to pieces. I want that job. But I digress…
I’ve been using the wheelchair I currently have since eighth grade, approximately 6-7 years. For the past few weeks, my parents, as well as my physical therapist, have been nudging me to start the process of getting a new one. Believe it or not, I really don’t like changing wheelchairs. I pretty much hate it. But when I tell people this, it usually takes them some time to understand where I’m coming from. I say the word “new” but they hear the word “better.” However, new is not always better when it comes to a seating arrangement that is such a crucial aspect of my everyday life.
I’m not a bratty 7-year-old though, I realize my chair is getting old and starting to break down more often, and I understand how extraordinarily fucked I’d be if my chair broke permanently before I had a new one. So this past Monday night, we met with someone from the wheelchair company to start the arduous process of getting me a new whip.
There are many reasons that I am so against changing wheelchairs. I’ve come to understand that many of the reasons are difficult to comprehend for the average able-bodied person, and that is the biggest problem; the able-bodied people who assist in the wheelchair selection and customization process have trouble understanding the intricacies of how I sit.
For instance, last time I got a new wheelchair, a big point of contention was the fact that I lean so far to the right and put almost all my body weight on my right rib cage. It’s a completely acceptable thing for the therapists and wheelchair representatives to be concerned about. However, and this is a big however, I physically can’t hold my head up or move my arms if my body is adjusted even several inches to the left. When I explained this to them back when I was 13, they essentially ignored me and played the “We’re specialists so we know better than you” card. It was extremely frustrating, as they lifted me from one chair to the next, while I knew just by looking at each chair that it wasn’t going to work.
They always said things like, “Well maybe if we reclined the chair your body would naturally rest on the backrest rather than your side. Or maybe we should look into a head strap that will hold your head in place since you can’t hold it up when you’re in the proper position.”
I responded, “But I would literally have to be almost fully reclined all the time, and I can’t drive that way, so that wouldn’t work. Also, I definitely do not want a head strap.”
Then came their line that filled me with so much anger that my eyes used to tear up, “Well Shane, we might just have to compromise on this one.”
It felt like they were ignoring everything I said, and to be told that I was going to have to wear a head strap from then on, with no say in the decision, was more belittling than you can imagine.
Similar arguments took place for many aspects of my wheelchair, not just the side support, so you can begin to see how I’ve grown to hate the process so much. The fact is, the specialists were usually wrong. They’ve been telling me since I was four that I’m going to get skin breakdown from leaning on my right elbow all day, and that we should look into a bunch of different methods to take pressure off my elbow, methods that would render my right arm unusable. Every six years I fight them off and somehow convince them that my elbow will be fine. Almost 20 years of leaning on my right elbow have gone by, and guess what, not once have I had any breakdown of the skin.
My wheelchair and all of my quirky positions work for me. I’d prefer not to change that.
With all that being said, this past Monday night went very smoothly. Maybe it’s because I’m over 18 now, maybe I was better able to explain my circumstances this time around, but the wheelchair specialist and my physical therapist both seemed to understand that I want to keep as much the same as possible. We’re ordering the newer model of the same chair, and we’re basically just going to re-create the seating position I currently use. It was a giant relief.
Now for the fun part! With a new wheelchair on the way (a process that will take 4-5 months… stupid insurance) I feel like the proper thing to do is take some time to honor the valiant life of my soon-to-be old wheelchair. We’ve been through a lot together… some fun, some shit, but all worth remembering. So I’ve decided to write a letter to my wheelchair to let her know how I really feel.
The time has come to say goodbye. But before you go, let’s reminisce about all the memories we’ve shared.
There were the countless feet that we have run over together. Most of the time it was an accident, but sometimes we did it on purpose and disguised it as an accident. Other times we ran over feet because people asked us to, not in a fetishy kind of way, more of a, “Run over my foot I want to see if it hur… OH GOD GET OFF GET OFF!”
There was the time we stayed outside in the summer downpour against all reasonable logic, and you broke down for three fucking days. I had to sit in a very old, very uncomfortable, manual wheelchair while you were being repaired. Andrew parked me in the corner and told me I was in timeout probably 100 times during those three days. Without instant Netflix, I probably would have died.
There was the time we were in the car together, not strapped in because we like to live on the edge, and when mom had to slam on the brakes, you rocketed towards the front of the van, since I had also forgotten to turn you off, breaking my big toe as we collided with the drivers seat. It was a learning experience though, we still don’t strap you in, but I at least remember to turn you off.
There was the time you threw me out of the safety of your seat when I ran over a soccer ball with you. The broken femur I suffered put me out of commission for a month. I still kind of hate you for that, but forgiveness is a process.
There were all the times we were an awesome street hockey goalie. Your 450 lbs of steel and brute force, combined with my cat-like reflexes and determination to win made quite an impressive team.
There was the time our road froze over and we had drift races until my entire body was frozen solid.
There were all the times when I used you as an excuse to get out of class early throughout high school. I think teachers are programmed to just say yes whenever someone in a wheelchair asks to do anything. “Mrs. Smith, can I be excused from class now to beat the crowd?”
“Shane, there are 20 minutes left in class.”
“Yeah but my wheelchair…”
“OH OH I’m sorry, yes, go right ahead. Do whatever you have to do. Here are the answers to tomorrow’s test.”
There was the time I missed the birth of my first-born son because I forgot to charge you the night before.
There was the time I burned holes in your controller interface because I wasn’t paying attention while playing with fire.
We have traveled hundreds of miles together. We went through puberty together. We made friends together. We experienced life together. I can never thank you enough for all that you’ve done for me. You will never be replaced. You will never be forgotten.
Unless, of course, my new chair is a lot cooler.