Chairs of Freedom

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Using a wheelchair is a sort of shorthand for being disabled – easy to understand, simpler to explain than a gastrostomy or dystonia or dysphagia, and a good graphic symbol. It is the approachable face of disability – a chair with wheels! We all understand chairs!

But of course they are also intimidating. Many parents of recently diagnosed babies wonder whether their child will walk, whether they will need a wheelchair. Lots of people have asked us if Sam will walk, whether he will always need his wheelchair. Everyone is preoccupied with walking, when its significance for us has been eclipsed by other more pressing matters. At least weak legs can be compensated for with a chair; finding a way to get round the inability to eat or talk is much more complicated.

If you have the good fortune to walk up stairs and run up hills then a wheelchair seems incredibly restrictive, something to be ‘confined’ to. However, if you find walking difficult then a wheelchair is an optimistic, helpful aid – providing the opportunity to get out in to the world (stairs/kerbs/snow/sand/mud/gravel/cobbles permitting). It’s crucial that it fits right, that it supports in the correct way. Sam spends hours in his.

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Sam’s wheelchair is provided by the NHS (I think, to be honest I’m not certain) through our local Wheelchair Service. We’ve worked our way through a couple so have visited numerous times and once we’re there we meet knowledgeable therapists who try their best to find and adjust the best chair for Sam.

But the process! The process of getting to the actual appointment is enough to drive me nuts.

Unlike every other aspect of interaction with therapists who work with disabled children, there is no process for review except for me to think, ‘Oh, Sam’s grown! He’s not looking as comfortable in his wheelchair, let’s make a wheelchair appointment’. Or to think, ‘Actually he’s flopping to one side in this chair, it could do with an expert reviewing it’.

Meanwhile, if something on the wheelchair breaks, we’re supremely relaxed. Should we find ourselves in a restaurant for lunch and Sam’s footplate drops on to the floor, we just call Wheelchair Maintenance. That is a totally different ballgame. One phone call and they will visit Sam’s chair at school the following day, wheel it off in to their magical van, and back it comes Good As New.

But if I phone the Wheelchair Service because the chair needs to be adjusted or reviewed, they put Sam on their waiting list. Two – four months later he gets an appointment, generally in the middle of the day so he misses hours of school.

One/two/three months is a long time for a boy who sits in the chair every time he leaves the house. Every time he visits the cinema, or gets on the school bus, or goes to meet Michael Rosen.

Of course, what actually happens is that I wait until Sam is looking like he might possibly be getting a bit longer and so in approximately three months time his chair will be too small, and so I phone and put him on the list.

It seems to me ironic that it’s so hard to see a wheelchair therapist, when they more than anyone realise the value of a good wheelchair and take pride in making sure wheelchairs are comfortable and practical.

This is an absurd system. It is bonkers to not acknowledge that children grow. Every other piece of Sam’s equipment can be adjusted by a physio or occupational therapist at home or school, and they will do it within a week or so of a problem being identified.

I have no doubt the reasons for such a creaky system are many and varied; I have expressed my frustration at length with the friendly, talented therapists who work for the service! Presumably there’s not as much money as there could be in areas like this. I have been told it’s difficult to recruit therapists to wheelchair services – it’s maybe not the most glamorous end of the physio world. The service has a high rate of DNAs (Did Not Attends) because by definition the kids they see are more complicated than the general population, more likely to be ill, more likely that something will come up last minute, and the DNAs mean fewer appointments to go around.

One of the advantages of having a comfortable, functioning wheelchair is you can use it to go ice skating. Then you realise that being in a wheelchair works incredibly well. Ice is one of the few environments where people in wheelchairs experience no inconvenience, while walking people are near-incapacitated. Hanging on to Sam’s wheelchair becomes really helpful, and then we can whizz him around at high speed, something he loves, as long as we go as fast as possible.

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(Yes, his shoe fell off. We are in a war of attrition with that right shoe.)

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