Wheeling Backwards: What it’s like to Roll in a Wheelchair (Poem)
In the poem, Wheeling Backwards, I wanted to convey the emotional impact of being wheelchair bound. We don’t want to think about the possibility of it happening to us, but in a blind instant—a car accident, a stroke, a spinal injury—we could be stuck in an uncomfortable and unforgiving wheelchair.
I’m lucky: I have all my vital organs. My limbs are working fine. My brain and spinal cord are in tact. I’m able to care for myself independently. But what about those people with severe physical disabilities? What is it like for them to live in a society that cherishes youth and strength and shuns weakness and body imperfection?
When I first moved to Santa Barbara six years ago, I got a job as a health aide for two disabled women who were wheelchair bound. Pushing these two women around town all day, I became increasing aware of their struggles.
Most things in a typical apartment or house like a shower, for instance, are not wheel chair accessible. Because my clients couldn’t wheel into the shower, I had to lift them up and place them onto a plastic chair. In the kitchen, they’re unable to reach the medium level shelves for food, let alone the top cabinets. Simply put, most houses are made for people with functional legs and many people in wheelchairs just can’t afford to make the necessary changes to accommodate their special needs.
In a lot of neighborhood corner stores, for instance, it was nearly impossible to get through its narrow doors, let alone squeeze the wheelchair through the tight aisles. The check-out counters were too high, making it impossible for the person to hand the clerk money for a bag of chips or a cup of coffee.
Working with these two women every day made me think a lot about what it might be like to be wheelchair bound: sitting all day, unable to stand up, seeing the world from the perspective of an uncomfortable seat, struggling to get inside a public restroom and being unable to reach for that box of cereal in a supermarket.
When I recently saw a man wheeling backwards in the Trader Joe’s parking lot, I decided to write this poem about the struggles of the wheelchair bound.
Do it every time I go uphill.
I find it easier that way, wheeling backwards
In the Trader Joe’s parking lot.
Just hope someone sees me;
hope one of those 16-cylinder Maseratis
don’t leave me for road kill
before I pick up my milk, bread and potatoes.
Safely inside Trader Joe’s, I
wheel around the fruits and vegetables,
get wedged between the soups and pastas,
a nice lady offers me a sample of nachos with avocados.
This disability stuff is hard—sweat pouring
down my brow, can’t carry all these groceries;
have to tie it to the back of my chair—
Weighing me down—an albatross around my soul.
Got to stay tough, got to keep rolling on.
Got to have strong arms and steady wheels.
I’m used to taking things on the chin, stared at
By able-bodied people with condescending grins.
Bullshit! I sometimes say while throwing my hands in the air.
But I can’t get too mad, can’t let myself get too down.
Nothing’s ever going to change, no matter how much I pray.
The fact is—Every day I’m stuck in this cramped chair of discomfort.
My mantra is: Got to be patient, that’s all;
Spin my wheels with a smile and hello;
Be cordial and polite to those who don’t know any better
And wait for the bus, for the wheelchair-accessible plate to come down.
Slowly, I wheel backwards up the ramp to my first-floor apartment:
My life story, my hardship with each turn of the wheel.
Seems that I have to do everything. I mean everything—
The hard way.
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