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Shoes that Work for Me as a Wheelchair User

For someone who can’t walk, I’ve certainly put a lot of thought into choosing the right pair of shoes. Finding shoes that work as a wheelchair user can be just as difficult as Prince Charming trying to slip Cinderella’s glass slipper on her step-sisters’ big feet.

Can I put the shoes on independently? Is there room to swell throughout the day? Might they cause skin breakdown? Will the shoes stay on during transfers? And, finally, are they stylish? Over the years, I’ve discovered shoes that work well for me. They all pass the test for the questions above.

Dress shoes

About 12 years ago I gave up on wearing flats. Flats would fall off during transfers. Plus my feet were swelling too much and turning a not-so-attractive shade of scarlet. Purple feet cause concerned looks. And too many questions. I can’t count the times I’ve heard, “Shouldn’t you elevate your feet?” My breaking point came when my young cousin asked, “Why are you wearing purple panty hose?”

After a lot of searching, I found my go-to dress shoes. With straight-cut or boot-cut dress pants, I wear Drew Rose Mary Jane in Black Croc and Brown Croc.

They’re considered orthopedic shoes, so they are extra deep. I’m not going to lie, they are pricey. But they don’t hurt my feet and stay on well when transferring. They fasten easily with Velcro – which is very convenient for quads. I’ve had my black pair for about seven years and they still look new.

Brown Croc Drew Rose Mary Janes

Another option are Mary Jane-style casual flats, since they don’t fall off due to the strap. I’ll pair cute socks with them (once again, hiding the purple feet and swelling) and wear them with skinny pants or jeans.

Sneakers

Converse-style shoes are great for casual wear. (However, I can’t squeeze my feet into a pair of Keds to save my life.) I’ve now worn out my Rocket Dog silver sneakers (one of the few pairs of shoes I’ve ever worn out!). I just replaced them with these inexpensive shiny silver shoes. They are great for a casual look. A plus is that they match everything and are lightweight for packing while traveling.

For a more “sporty” look, I’ve found running shoes that, unfortunately, never have the opportunity to fulfill their purpose in life.

Easy-to-use Laces

With my athletic shoes, I use stretch laces with a lock that were originally made for triathletes. Once again, I’ll never run a triathlon, but these do the trick well.  

With sneakers I use SlackLace – Flat Elastic Shoe Laces. Someone ties these once, then I can just slip my shoes on and off since the laces stretch. It not only makes them easier to get on and off, but the laces give with the swelling my feet experience, too.

Another type of laces recently recommended by a friend was Zubits. These magnetic closure laces come in different “sizes” based on activity level. She recommends the Child/Elder option for people with limited hand function. These allow you to open up the shoe wide so it’s easier to slip your foot into the shoe.

Boots aren’t made just for walking

Finally, I’ve found boots that actually work for me. For years I swore I couldn’t wear boots. Then a friend let me (well, made me) try hers on. I felt so… stylish!

The trick for me is a back- or side-close zipper with a zipper-pull attached. I’ve found that ankle length boots are great for leggings – even in the summer. It’s a great alternative to wearing flats.

And in rain or during the winter, taller boots keep my feet dry and warm-ish. (Nothing keeps my feet warm – just being honest.) Watch this video to see how I put on these boots.

Preventing slippage

In my manual chair, my feet have a tendency to bounce or slip off the footplate under bumpy conditions (think cobblestones). I’ve found that self-adhesive non-skid shoe pads or non-slip tape on both my shoes and footplate work well. (In desperate situations like Prague, I’ll actually add a bungee cord.)

Considerations for swelling and warmth

If you’re like me, swelling and keeping my feet warm are a problem. The past few years I’ve switched over to wearing compression socks all the time. It helps with swelling, but doesn’t eliminate the problem. I like these black compression socks by Swell Relief. They also come in different colors. Compression socks are also easier to put on that compression hose.

Many women with spinal cord injuries swear that UGG boots keep their feet and legs warm and toasty. Unfortunately, I bought a knock-off brand and couldn’t get them on or off off easily even though I sized up. One night I panicked as thought I was going to have to sleep in them!

But recently a friend had on a pair of tall zip-up UGG-like boots from Target. These are so cute – and warm! And they come in wide sizes.

Shoes are more than style

Just because we don’t walk, it doesn’t mean we don’t need shoes. I learned this the hard way during a fire alarm in the middle of the night. In the chaos, my bare foot slipped off my footplate and my big toe dragged along the concrete. It wasn’t until I got back inside that my roommate noticed a puddle of blood under my chair. And I have to admit, this has happened more than once.

With that in mind, I encourage you to wear shoes for safety. (What hits the door first when you are opening it?). Also, shoes can help prevent your feet and toes from curling under.

A few things to remember:

  • Go up a size or two – or go wider.
  • If the shoe that fits well costs a bit of money, just remember you’ll have them for years without wearing them out.
  • Talk to your doctor about wearing compression socks or compression hose to help with swelling.
  • Check your feet for red spots or pressure sores just as you would your tush. A sore on a foot can take ages to heal due to lack of circulation.
  • Wear socks inside out to prevent the seam from creating pressure points on your toes/feet.
  • Slit a pair of shoes down the back if you need less pressure on the back of your heel/ankle.
  • For sandals, use clear bra straps or color-coordinated elastic to keep the sandals from slipping off during transfers.
  • Return shoes that don’t fit. (I’ll admit… I’ve kept a pair on for several hours until I’d know if they would work.)

Just remember these wise words of wisdom from Not Will Ferrell @itsWillyFerrell on Twitter: “Never trust a man in a wheelchair that [sic] has dirty shoes.”

(P.S. It’s a joke… I know some of you chair users are able to walk, too.)

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