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Challenging Perceptions: "Why Do People Associate Wheelchair Use with Failure?"

wheelchair with prosthetic legs in background

After receiving life-changing injuries, I started my rehabilitation at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre Headley Court. I would spend the next four and a half years at Headley Court getting fit, recovering from multiple operations, and learning how to walk again on my prosthetic legs.

For everyone who rehabilitated at Headley Court, it seemed the main effort was to recover from surgery quickly and start using prosthetics as soon as possible. Anything else was deemed a failure. Although this wasn't said out loud, I'm sure that this article will resonate with others who spent time rehabilitating in the Surrey countryside.

I remember one occasion when I had undergone several brutal surgeries, and I was incapacitated for months. I returned to Headley Court; I was miserable and in pain and still recovering. However, I was using my wheelchair because my prosthetics wouldn't have fit me, as well as being too painful to use. A new patient whom I didn't know started chatting with me. He tried to lift my spirits by telling me not to worry; I wouldn't be in my chair forever. Little did they know that not only had I been on my legs for quite some time, but I had managed to walk again less than two months after getting injured. Although they didn't know my situation, this advice was condescending and unhelpful.

Headley Court was a great place to learn to walk again; I was one of those blokes who got back on his legs and cracked on with my life. Not everyone got on prosthetic legs; it must have been incredibly frustrating feeling like you had somehow failed in your recovery.

Since leaving the military, I have experienced some of my colleagues' disappointment; I wasn't using my prosthetics in the same way I had enjoyed whilst at Headley and in the years before COVID-19. Some of this was by choice, and some of it was because of my health or through poorly fitting prosthetics.

Although using prosthetics allowed me a new sense of independence, it also took options away from me. I didn't realise this until much later on in life.

Let me explain.

When presented with a choice of completing an activity, I would have a brief internal conversation like this: ' Can I do this task on my legs?' 'Yes, cool, crack on.' or 'No, okay, I won't do it then.' I wouldn't stop and ask myself, 'Can you do this activity in your wheelchair instead?' I was self-selecting myself out of having a fulfilling life.

Here is an example:

The school run is always a hectic start to the day for most parents. However, I made my life difficult by rushing to get my legs on, jumping into the van and then trying to get into school or find a parking space outside. I was a frantic mess.

Now, I walk whichever kid needs walking, and I use my wheelchair. Do I like my wheelchair? No. Do I feel like a failure? Yes, sometimes. However, now it's about spending those precious moments with my kids on the school run; it's not about me and my negative thoughts. I also get an extra bit of exercise before the day starts.

Walking the kids to school has led to us getting a dog as a family. Guess who walks it the most? Yeah, you guessed right, me. Do I mind? Not one bit.

Bertie, our amazing Cockerpoo, and I walk for an hour in the mornings and then again in the afternoon, come rain or shine. I'm in my wheelchair, and Bertie walks by my side. We are a great team. In the morning, we walk between four and five kilometres most weekdays, which I couldn't do with my prosthetic legs. We chat with all sorts of different people along the way. We have fun. We get a bit of exercise. Was this an option for me a few years ago? Probably not.

Although my opinion about my wheelchair will never change, I've learned to get on with it. I am fortunate to have several options open to me. I can use my prosthetics or a short little prosthetic for my right leg with crutches; I can use my wheelchair, or I can even use my Triride. A Triride is an electric motorised attachment for one of my old wheelchairs. It's quick, and the kids like using it, too.

I've come to view all these options as tools. I use the correct tool for the right job. As a result, my life is so much easier.

In conclusion, my journey has been one of self-discovery and adaptation. I've learned that true success lies not in conforming to societal expectations but in finding what works best for me and embracing it wholeheartedly. While the road has been challenging, it has also been rewarding, leading me to cherish precious moments with my family and discover newfound independence. By challenging the perceptions surrounding wheelchair use and redefining my view of success, I've found a path to fulfilment and happiness.

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