I'm dusting this blog off through a combination of a new year's resolution to blog more and because various things are happening and I thought this is a good place to record them.
Over the last few years I've been thinking hard about the transition to using a wheelchair, at least part of the time. I've been borrowing them at museums and galleries and last autumn hired one from the local Red Cross. The chair I got from them was a basic folding one, of the sort the NHS used to provide, but it wasn't too heavy and I was able to hack it to make it relatively maneuverable - removing the footrests and armrests and half folding the back. It was significantly lighter than the heavy duty ones you find at museums. It got me through a conference and the Scottish Referendum count and sold me on the benefits of getting one. That decided, I started looking at the bewildering range available. You can buy a folding wheelchair for £100 or a lightweight one for £400 and I suspect many people start with these. I was lucky though in that a friend pointed me in the direction of the new NHS wheelchair service National Wheelchair Eligibility Criteria and it seemed like I might be eligible for an energy efficient lightweight wheelchair, so I had my GP write the referral and, after an initial hiccup when I was sent a non-energy efficient chair (within a week!) I had an appointment with a lovely Occupational Therapist (OT) to discuss my needs.
I have to say - I have never been so impressed with an NHS service. And I'm a fan of the NHS.
Lovely OT listened to my views of my disability and discussed with me what might be suitable. She discussed the pros and cons of a lightweight chair and was frank about what I would need to do to use one - that I would need to commit to going through to Glasgow to learn how to use it safely and that it wouldn't be ordered until I had demonstrated I could. It might take 2 or 3 visits to get my skills up. Not a problem.
So, a couple of weeks later I was through in Glasgow, with Lovely OT again, trying out wheelchairs. She had me try a Quickie Life which was amazingly easy to use, compared to the Red Cross one. At the Westmarc centre, they have an obstacle course to try out and the reason they do this was clear as I arrived. Somewhat sadly, an older lady was failing her skills test for an electric wheelchair. The course has a range of surfaces, two ramps of different gradients, a narrow "parking space" and different height kerbs. Here's a picture:
In addition to this obstacle course, the main skill is what are called caster flicks - flicking up your front casters (those dinky wee wheels that are really maneuverable) so you don't get stuck in tram lines or at a kerb. So I got to do that over a broom handle, over the cracks in the pavement, up a 5cm kerb and eventually up a 10cm kerb. The idea is you do them whilst moving - going up kerbs you need the momentum to get the large back wheels up.
Lightweight chairs are very different to standard chairs. The word Lovely OT used was "tippy", which is a good word, because what they want to do, lots, is tip over backwards. So most of the skill involved is learning how to use your upper body to counterbalance them so you don't end up flat on your back (which apparently, everyone does at some point). Lovely OT followed me round, holding a strap attached to the back bar of the chair, to prevent this, and she has given me one to bring home for practicing the hardest skill of all - back wheel balancing. This is different for everyone and very dependent on your weight, but I'm told it's like riding a bicyle - once you learn, it's easy. All I know is it will involve a bit of abdominal muscle development as well!
It turned out I was able to do everything the first time, which I credit to some practice in the Red Cross chair but also to having pretty good upper body strength after 5 years on crutches. So we talked chairs. She ended up ordering me the Quickie Helium - one of the lightest (and therefore tippiest) chairs on the market. I even got to pick the colour (black with faint sparkles) but sadly not the colour of the aluminium bits (I'd have gone for red), which are also black. I picked it up last week, but I think that should be another post.