Daniel was dreading the first day at his new school. Even though he was a good student and looked forward to the fourth grade, he was worried about making new friends. He wondered how the other children would react to him. He knew he was different because he couldn't run and play and hang from the monkey bars on the playground. Daniel spent most of his time using a wheelchair because he couldn't walk.
On the first day of school, Daniel packed his lunch and combed his hair. As he rolled into his new classroom, he noticed the startled looks on the faces of his schoolmates. Then, from the back of the room, he heard a voice say, "Wow! Neat chair! Wonder if he'll show us how it works at recess?" After he heard this, Daniel knew he'd fit right in.
Where Did Wheelchairs Come From?
The history of the wheelchair dates back to the ancient Egyptians who used hand-pushed carts for people who couldn't get around. Although wheelchairs changed and improved over the years, they still weren't anything like the ones you see today. In the 1800s, they were basically chairs on wheels that were pushed from behind. Early 20th century wheelchairs had spoke wheels and wire wound rubber tires, according to Louis Slangen, vice president at Invacare, a company that creates wheelchairs and other home medical products. They were made of heavy chrome-plated steel that averaged between 45 and 50 pounds and featured stiff, vinyl upholstery. "Although wheelchairs serve the same purpose today as they did many years ago, they do it farther, lighter, longer, and more comfortably than ever before," Mr. Slangen says.
You may remember pictures of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) in a wheelchair. FDR was president of the United States from 1933 until his death in 1945. He contracted polio in 1921, when he was 39 years old. He was never again able to walk on his own. On January 5, 2001, former President Bill Clinton dedicated a statue of FDR at the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C. According to the National Organization on Disability (NOD), it is the first statue to depict a world leader using a wheelchair. "This dedication represents a great victory for people with disabilities . . . [it] will be an inspiration to people worldwide, disabled and nondisabled alike," NOD President Alan Reich says.
What Does a Wheelchair Do?
Today's wheelchairs have special gadgets to make life easier for the person operating them, and many even use computer technology. Modern wheelchairs take into account the need for back, neck, head, and leg support, and a kid's growing bones. They also include safety features such as automatic brakes and anti-tipping devices.
Power wheelchairs have many advantages for kids who need them. Electronic controllers can help a kid who uses a wheelchair drive smoothly, brake easily, and make the wheelchair move with the touch of a hand! Some hand controllers look like a joystick used to play a video game and are easy to operate. But for a person who relies on a wheelchair, getting around by himself is not a game. It's an important part of being independent.
Who Needs a Wheelchair?
Kids may need wheelchairs for many different reasons. Some have had injuries that interfere with their ability to walk. Others have disabilities due to medical conditions such as muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy, and they need a wheelchair to help them get around. Some children are missing legs and may not be good candidates for artificial limbs. In some cases, kids have wheelchairs but don't need to use them all the time. For example, they might be able to walk with the aid of crutches or a walker sometimes.
What these kids have in common is that a wheelchair can help them get around on their own - without the help of others.
What's Life Like for Someone Who Uses a Wheelchair?
Kids who use wheelchairs usually fall into two categories: kids who use wheelchairs short term and kids who use wheelchairs long term. A kid who uses a wheelchair short term might be someone who breaks a leg or who has surgery that prevents him from walking for awhile. After a certain amount of time, the kid won't need the wheelchair anymore. Even though a kid who uses a wheelchair for a short time may feel frustrated or sad that he has to rely on others to help him get around, there is comfort in knowing that he'll be on his feet again one day.
For a kid who depends on a wheelchair for the long term, life is different. These kids must learn to use the features of a wheelchair to get around easily. A kid who depends on a wheelchair may not have use of his legs, or he may have a type of illness that doesn't allow him to move easily. For a person who uses a wheelchair long term, a wheelchair is a great thing to have, but it can also be really tough to deal with sometimes. Fortunately, the technology behind wheelchairs allows the people who use them to do more each day, and the medical community is working hard on treatment and cures for illnesses that affect kids who use wheelchairs.
People who use wheelchairs can shop, work, go to school, play, drive cars - even compete in some special types of sports competitions. But they also must look for handicapped-accessible buildings, special ramps, and environments that are wheelchair-friendly. Not everyone is as accepting as Daniel's classmates, and life can be hard for someone who uses a wheelchair. They may be teased, feel left out, and get treated differently than other kids.
The next time you see a kid using a wheelchair, try to help in any way you can. If you see toys or books in his path at school, for example, clear the way so he can get around. Otherwise, remember to treat him the way you would any other friend or classmate. People who use wheelchairs are the same as everyone else. They just have a different way of getting around!
Reviewed by: Michael Alexander, MD
Date reviewed: April 2001
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