From Manual to Motorized: When It’s Time to Change Wheelchairs

Jeff Shannon: FROM WHERE I'M SITTING...

FB profile (3)About two weeks ago, I was watching TV from my Invacare TDX powered wheelchair when, without warning, the chair refused to move. The joystick went dead, and the status screen on the control box indicated “Right Motor Fault” and “Right Brake Fault,” and I had no idea how to fix it. I knew there was a reset switch on the right side of the chair, but as I felt around with my semi-numb fingers, I couldn’t find it. So there I was, immobilized, and my cell phone was just a few inches beyond my reach.

I tried turning the chair’s power off and on, hoping that would restore the motor and brake function. It didn’t. I sat for a few minutes, hoping the chair would “self-recover.” It didn’t. Fortunately I had one more option: I was wearing my Life Alert badge on a string necklace; my health insurance plan had provided it for emergencies like this, and after a few more frustrating minutes I pressed the button. In less than a minute, I was talking to an operator via the Life Alert receiver, which was sitting on a shelf about 12 feet away. Several minutes later, an EMT team arrived.

The EMTs found the reset switch, and at first it looked like the problem was solved. Then the chair went dead again. We tried the reset switch several more times, to no avail. Suddenly the chair starting working again, as if nothing had happened. Slightly embarrassed, I thanked the EMTs and they left.

Prepare for Every Contingency

But what if I hadn’t had my Life Alert badge? What if I had been outside in the cold, rainy weather, or driving my minivan out in the middle of nowhere? When I was sitting there, worried about whether the chair was going to work or not, the obvious thought popped into my head: This would never happen with a manual chair.

Chances are, if your SCI is C-5 or higher, you may not have the option of using a manual chair, except perhaps for vacations and special occasions. The higher your injury level is, the more mechanically sophisticated your powered chair is likely to be, and occasional breakdowns are virtually guaranteed. Any mechanical and/or electronic device that operates on electricity will eventually malfunction.

For those who have a choice, the lesson here is obvious: Use a manual wheelchair as much as you possibly can. Pushing them promotes strength, endurance, self-confidence and overall health, both mental and physical. Manual chairs are far more convenient than powered chairs, especially if you travel. They, too, can malfunction, but it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever be frozen in your tracks.

In early 1980, when I was released from the hospital after seven highly beneficial months of rehab, I was sent home with two wheelchairs: A standard-issue Everest & Jennings stainless steel manual chair, and a standard-issue E&J motorized chair. (Unlike the stealthy, almost silent six-wheelers of today, the old E&J’s sounded, at best, like the small motor of a rock-polishing machine. At worst, they sounded like belt-driven coffee grinders.)

To me the choice was obvious: I was an 18-year-old quad, vainly wanting to look as able-bodied as possible. I had enough arm and shoulder function to push a manual chair efficiently, so the E&J powered chair sat neglected in our garage. A couple years later, my parents and I agreed to sell it, and I proceeded to use manual chairs for the next 30 years. I’ve never regretted that decision, but in the 20/20 vision of hindsight, I would’ve kept the powered chair and used it for specific occasions when hills and rough terrain would’ve made manual pushing problematic.

It’s that simple: If you’re a quad who can push a manual chair, decide for yourself when it’s smarter to use a powered chair. Keep your options open, and don’t be swayed by your vanity. We all want to look as good as possible, but you should also swallow your pride and enjoy the liberating ease of a powered chair.

In 2009, when physical setbacks, aging and other issues led me to transition to a powered chair, I immediately realized that my stubborn pride had prevented me from enjoying the obvious benefits of motorized mobility. If you enjoy going fast as much as I do, using a powered chair is a no-brainer. The problem of hills and long distances immediately disappeared. Simply put, the benefits of a powered chair far outweigh the drawbacks – even those occasional, inevitable breakdowns that cause so much convenience and potential danger.

Knowing When to Switch

When the time comes to switch, don’t expect it to be easy – at least, not at first. Unless you’re extremely careful, it is virtually guaranteed that you will damage walls, kitchen cabinets and furniture as you grow accustomed to powered mobility. For a while at least, you’re going to be a bull in a china shop. If you own cats or small dogs, beware: You’ll probably run over their tails a few times if you (or they) are not paying attention.

Psychologically, of course, there’s a trade-off, especially if you have any body-image issues about your appearance. I’m keenly aware that I look “more disabled” when using my Invacare TDX, but what surprised me, as I began using it, was how little that mattered compared to the benefits of increased mobility. I’ll never regret using a manual for 30 years; I stayed fit and remarkably healthy during all that time. I never felt limited, but in many respects I was. Using the TDX, I enjoy far more mobility than was ever possible in the manual.

There’s one big exception, however: My TDX chair and I weigh 515 pounds combined, and that prevents being lifted up stairs. Now the homes of my friends are almost 100% inaccessible unless they have a ramp or level entry. That has increased my sense of social isolation, but that can be alleviated by meeting friends in restaurants or inviting them over. In the next few months I’ll be striking a comfortable balance, using my manual chair whenever it’s practical to do so, and my TDX most of the time.

It took me 30 years to come to my senses, but I’m glad I finally did. If you’re a quad who uses a manual chair exclusively, consider the alternatives. It’s never just one or the other. Have fun with both.

Who was Jeff Shannon?

Please leave a comment about your own story below.

About Jeff Shannon

Jeff is a veteran writer on disability issues, as well as a longtime movie reviewer and film historian. Jeff is also a C-5/6 quad, who was injured in 1979. (There’s more about Jeff’s personal history at the end of his post.) We are proud to have the thoughtful, provocative and honest voice of Jeff Shannon as a regular contributor to our website. -

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