I’ve been holding my tongue on this topic for a long time. Why? Because it gets me fired up. Let’s call it a righteous anger. Over and over I read posts on social media from Westerners living in developed countries who complain about the quality of wheelchair they have access to.
There’s a huge problem here: ignorance of the reality for people with disabilities in the majority of the world.
A First World Mentality
The following comment set me off one morning.
Stating that all we have in the U.S. are “crappy wheelchairs” is blasphemy.
I’m not saying we have a perfect system. Fighting with insurance is frustrating. Some people fall through the cracks. Chairs break. And I won’t even touch having to deal with DME companies.
But the wheelchairs mentioned above easily cost several thousand dollars. We can choose which model we want. A professional will help us make an informed decision on a specialized back rest and cushion to meet our needs. The chairs are made of lightweight titanium or aluminum. They are custom fit.
That doesn’t sound like a piece of crap to me. And for a brief moment I spoke my mind and hit enter.
Then I promptly deleted my hot-tempered reply. I knew my point of view wouldn’t be understood in the context from which I was writing it.
Statistics from Around the Globe
The World Health Organization reports that 65 million people need a wheelchair, but do not have access to one.1
Millions of men, women and children who spend their days on the floor. Completely dependent.
Hundreds of thousands of valuable human lives hidden away in a corner for having a disability. After all, they must have done something to deserve it, according to the beliefs of their culture.
Children placed in a box so they can’t crawl while they are left alone in the house. Why? They aren’t allowed to attend school and mom and dad have to work.
These are the people who are truly confined by their disability.
The families are not uncaring. The people are not lazy. It’s simply that there is no wheelchair to be had.
The Things I’ve Seen
For eight years I worked for a non-profit organization distributing wheelchairs in developing countries. Some of the things I have seen and heard still haunt me.
A teenage boy carried by his mother to receive a wheelchair. A young boy carried by his older brother.
A hidden figure – completely covered by a blanket to cover their shame – being pushed in a wheelbarrow.
Talking with Marisol. She’d had polio and was paralyzed from the chest down, with little use of her hands. When I asked her how she got around her house, she looked down at the floor with shame and responded, “En mi trasero.” On my bottom.
Meeting a 35-year-old man who was carried in by friends. I quickly saw he was a quad with similar function as me. He had been injured by a gunshot wound 7 years prior in fighting against the Taliban. His lungs rattled with each breath due to pneumonia. Against all odds, he’d beaten the life expectancy of two years with a cervical spinal cord injury in Afghanistan. Seven years of living hell.
A Wheelchair Changes Everything
Each of the people above would gladly take your “crappy wheelchair.”
In fact, each person above received a wheelchair that had been donated and refurbished. Each wheelchair was fitted for that individual. Was each chair perfect? No. Were the wheelchairs lightweight chairs that we consider “every day” manual chairs? Very few. But an unwanted wheelchair was given a new owner.
More importantly, those old chairs gave thousands of men, women and children an opportunity to have some semblance of hope, dignity and independence.
Just like you and I have.
The next time you begin to offer a quick word of advice on how to get a wheelchair when a person lives in a different country, please pause and think. Are you sure they even have access to a wheelchair?
Before you complain about the quality of the mobility aids you have, remember to take a deep breath and give thanks for what you do have. Then vent.
A broken chair is an inconvenience. (That’s an understatement.) It immobilizes us. It’s expensive.
But imagine life without a wheelchair. Day after day after day…
I have a wheelchair. More than 65 million people around the world with disabilities cannot say that.
Where to Donate a Used Wheelchair
The following is a list of organizations that collect, refurbish and distribute used wheelchairs. Please consider donating “the backup to your backup chair” that is sitting in the garage collecting dust. Oftentimes these organizations have volunteers throughout the U.S., so call to see if they have someone near you.
- Wheels for the World (http://www.joniandfriends.org/wheels-for-the-world/)
- Hope Haven International (https://www.hopehaven.org/what-we-do/international-ministries/wheelchairs)
- Wheels for Humanity (https://ucpwheels.org/)
- Hope Haven West (http://www.hopehavenwest.com/)
- World Access Project (http://www.worldaccessproject.org/)
- Wheels of Hope (http://www.wheelsofhope.org/donate.html)
- CARAT (donations stay in Kentucky, https://www.katsnet.org/projectCARAT/donate.php)
- For donations for use in the U.S. (like CARAT above), contact the Disabled American Veterans, other disability agencies, or independent living centers in your area.
Organizations that develop and build affordable, durable mobility equipment:
- Beeline Wheelchairs (http://beelinewheelchairs.org/)
- Participant (https://www.participant.life/)
- Whirlwind Wheelchair – Rough Rider (https://whirlwindwheelchair.org/)
- UCP (https://ucpwheels.org/products/)
- ROC Wheelchairs (https://www.rocwheels.org/)
- World Health Organization. (2019). Guidelines on the provision of manual wheelchairs in less-resourced settings. [online] Available at: https://www.who.int/disabilities/publications/technology/wheelchairguidelines/en/ [Accessed 26 Nov. 2019].