Wheelchairs

Daniel was dreading the first day at his new school. Any kid would be a little nervous to be starting at someplace new, but Daniel was extra-worried because he uses a wheelchair. He wondered how the other kids would react. Would they stare and make fun of him?

On the first day of school, he rolled into his new classroom and met his teacher. She asked if it would be OK to talk to the class about his wheelchair and Daniel agreed. Whew! He felt so relieved when she did. Mrs. Boyle told everyone that wheelchairs are just a good way of getting around if a person has trouble walking. "It helps Daniel be independent," she said.

What Does a Wheelchair Do?

Daniel's motorized wheelchair was nothing like the old-fashioned kind you see in black & white movies — or like the one President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used. No longer are wheelchairs heavy and difficult to maneuver. Today's wheelchairs are lighter, faster, and easier to use. Many use computer technology and offer better support for a person's back, neck, head, and legs. 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 or even by puffing on a special straw! Some hand controllers look like a joystick used to play video games and are easy to operate.

Who Needs a Wheelchair?

Kids can need wheelchairs for many different reasons. Some have had injuries either to their legs or spine, which controls leg movement. Others have disabilities due to muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy. 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's Life Like?

Kids who use wheelchairs usually fall into two categories: kids who use them for a short time (for instance, kids who broke a leg or had surgery) and those who use them for a long time, or permanently. Even though kids who use a wheelchair for a short time may feel frustrated or sad about relying on others to get around, they know that someday the wheelchair won't be necessary.

For kids who depend on a wheelchair for the long term, life is different. They'll need to learn how to use the wheelchair in lots of different situations — at home, in school, while away on vacation. In some cases, it will be hard to use the wheelchair or it might take a long time. That can be frustrating, but wheelchairs are getting better all the time. And researchers continue to look for treatments and cures for the medical problems that lead to paralysis.

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, parking places, and environments that are wheelchair-friendly. Not everyone is as accepting as Daniel's teacher, so life can be hard for someone who uses a wheelchair. A person 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 be a friend. Usually, kids in wheelchairs don't need to be pushed around, but they might need other kinds of help. Opening a door or clearing the path will be appreciated. But the best help of all is to be kind and friendly and not to tease or stare. People who use wheelchairs are the same as everyone else. They just get around on wheels instead of feet!

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: November 2009
Originally reviewed by: Michael A. Alexander, MD

Kids Health

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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