Wheelchair for a Day Challenges – Helpful or Harmful?

Man in a wheelchair on a crosswalk next to his friend

March is Disability Awareness Month in our home state of Indiana, and many local organizations and businesses have chosen different ways to raise awareness about the millions of Americans who live with a physical disability. One popular way to recognize the challenges of navigating life from a wheelchair is through a Wheelchair for a Day challenge.  It's an "opportunity" for an individual who does not need additional mobility equipment to spend an entire day from either a manual or power wheelchair to gain a better understanding of how even the tiniest design detail can make an easy task impossible when you're maneuvering the world on wheels.    

Employees at BraunAbility have taken part in these challenges in the past, and it wasn’t until this year that we paused and thought, “Are we doing the right thing?” Before we embarked on another challenge, we asked The Driving Force if that’s truly an effective way to gain valuable perspective or is there a better alternative to understand the true effects of navigating life from a wheelchair.      

Do you feel that Wheelchair for a Day exercises harm the disability community?    

Yes – 21%  

No – 67%  

Neutral – 12%     

Wheelchair for a Day Challenges Only Go So Far   

First of all, it goes without saying, a Wheelchair for a Day challenge doesn’t come close to painting a true picture of life with a physical disability, and that’s what many members of The Driving Force stressed. “I don't think it really gives able-bodied people a true picture of what it's like to have a mobility impairment,” said one member. “They don't understand difficulties with transferring, or bladder/bowel programs, or many other things. They just think it means you can't walk.”   

Medication side effects, social stigma, financial burdens, secondary symptoms that result from the primary disability – the list of complex issues faced by someone with a physical disability is significantly longer, and many cases significantly more challenging than just the challenges faced from limited mobility.  

Acknowledge that before you sit down, and that’s a good start.   

Aim for an Authentic Wheelchair for a Day Experience  

Like anything, there’s a right and a wrong way to go about a Wheelchair for a Day experience. With the right expectations, it can be an eye-opening catalyst for positive change. Frame it poorly, and it risks coming off as entertainment.   

“It's important to do this exercise from a place of wanting to learn and understand, not just do it as a "challenge" or simply for the experience,” said one Driving Force member. “Being put in another person's shoes (or "wheels") with the intent of learning and helping those different to you is a healthy way to gain understanding.”  

Here are a few ways to make sure a Wheelchair for a Day challenge is effective:  

  • Park in standard parking spots without the access aisle that provides the extra room to deploy a ramp or assemble a manual wheelchair and transfer into it – this helps you understand what it’s like when accessible parking spaces aren’t respected
  • Tie both legs together as a visual reminder that you can’t use your legs (or all of your core, technically) to make transferring from the wheelchair to other chairs more realistic.  
  • Spend part of the day in a power chair and the other half in a manual chair and compare the differences. Send participants on a scavenger hunt of sorts that puts them face-to-face with real challenges that require critical thinking. For example, getting items on the top shelf of the supermarket or visiting locations with heavy, manual doors.  
  • Add weights to arms to simulate limited strength or consider keeping one arm completely immobile to represent the effects of a stroke. 
  • Don’t just get ready for work and then get in the wheelchair; ideally the first transfer of the day would be from bed to wheelchair so all the ‘getting ready’ aspects, from toilet to dressing to showers, could be experienced to the furthest extent possible.  

Congress, Take a Wheelchair for a Day Challenge  

There’s one portion of the population that Driving Force members believe would definitely benefit from a day (or more) in a wheelchair – our lawmakers.   

The disability rights slogan “Nothing about us without us” helped ensure the opinions of people with disabilities were considered in the creation of laws that impacted their lives. That was 50 years ago, and today many people with physical disabilities want more than just a listening ear.   

“Have each and every member of Congress be confined to a wheelchair for an entire week and not allowed out of the chair for any reason unless helped by an attendant or caregiver,” said one Driving Force member. “And have them try to access all public places including bathrooms by themselves.”  

While lawmakers were most often singled out as the group who could benefit most from the challenge, Driving Force members encouraged the exercise for any business owner with an establishment open to the public and those working in building design and architecture.   

“In my opinion, every business owner and every public official should have to spend at least a day getting around in their public offices or spaces in a wheelchair, including (sadly) medical offices,” suggested one member.    

Make It Matter by Talking through Your Wheelchair for a Day Experience    

Not everyone is on board with the idea of a Wheelchair for a Day Challenge. At the end of the day, said many, the participant stands up and rolls the wheelchair out of the way. “Plus, the first day in a wheelchair isn’t so bad. It’s when it becomes a reality and touches your life for years at a time that it really has a true impact,” stated one respondent.  

“Research has shown that these exercises on their own can lead to greater negative attitudes and stigmatizing beliefs about individuals with disabilities,” said one Driving Force member. “To get the desired effect, it is recommended that these exercises be followed by a debrief session that properly frames the exercise.”   

And as many respondents pointed out, that debriefing needs to happen with someone who has a mobility challenge. Spend at least an hour describing your day to someone who lives it every day, don’t be afraid to ask questions and listen to how they overcome some of the same challenges.  

For some, a better alternative is shadowing a wheelchair user for a day. Respondents recommend shadowing a person with a disability or their caregiver to observe the effort spent on the simplest daily task and appreciate the ingenious ways people develop alternative methods to do what needs to be done. “The disability community is amazingly creative,” said one participant.   

Consider taking a wheelchair user out for lunch or coffee and insert yourself into their day. Don’t be an assistant, just experience the world with them, reminded one Driving Force member. “That restaurant has steps? We all go somewhere else. This one has a great ramp? Run down it with your hands in the air while they roll at top speed. Be a friend. Cultivate empathy that way.”  

Of course, since Drive for Inclusion is devoted to making sure the thoughts and opinions of people with mobility challenges are collected and heard, we agreed 100% with the member who said, “The better idea would be to include us in the conversation from the beginning and enlist us when new projects arise.”   

Please share this article on social media to get the conversation – and maybe a new set of challenges – going! Better yet, encourage a member of your local government or Chamber of Commerce to take part and show their commitment to the disability community and greater inclusion! 

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