This article was first published on VICE Alps
When I climbed that tree that summer day 10 years ago, I didn't stop to think that whatever goes up fast, can come down even faster. A certain level of my trust in nature was lost when that branch, which I thought would have held my weight, broke. That accident in 2005 left me partially paralysed.
Interestingly, you don't have to suffer from paraplegia to be in a wheelchair. There are a lot of conditions that can land you in one of those – like Multiple Sclerosis (MS) or Parkinson's disease, for instance.
Complete paraplegia usually means a complete loss of sensation and control below the affected vertebrae. In my case, my spinal cord was ruptured at the height of the fourth thoracic vertebra, which was shattered. What followed was a month in the hospital and five long months of rehabilitation.
If, like me, you get lucky in your misfortune, some sense might come back after two or three months. Slowly. In the meantime, you wallow in the protected environment of the rehabilitation clinic, trying to control your self-pity, while learning how to drive a wheelchair, how to dress yourself without standing up, how to get into bed and to the toilet, how to get up a flight of stairs – a lot of shit that you never wasted time thinking about before, basically. My mother cried when I eventually managed to stand up with some help, three or four months after the accident. I cried when I began functioning sexually around the same time.
But the real rehabilitation begins when you get out of rehab.
Those who I meet for the first time, normally won't ask me what happened to me – or they will only ask after having gotten to know me. That is obviously because nobody wants to make me feel awkward. But I don't want to make you feel awkward either. So just know that it would just be easiest if you all just asked right off the bat. Here is a list of questions I either get asked too often or not often enough:
Questions I Get Asked too Often and Sentences I Don't Want to Hear
"I know an old lady down the street who uses a wheelchair. You must also know her?"
"Have you ever thought about pimping your wheelchair out with a motor?"
"This shaman says that you can activate your self-healing powers with meditation. And faith. Do you believe that?"
"You could attach two jet engines to your wheelchair and then…"
"I bet you could walk perfectly if you tried MDMA."
Questions I Don't Get Asked Often Enough and Sentences I'd Like to Hear
"Can I try using your wheelchair?"
"Can you have sex?"
"Can I get you something from the bar?"
"What exactly is it that doesn't work in your body?"
"My place or yours?"
Some Answers to All Your Burning Questions
The cliché is that sex is difficult. But talking about it seems to be taboo for many. I get a lot of stupid questions, while nobody asks the important ones. I'll gladly answer any questions about my disability. However, the person asking should be able to evaluate the circumstances properly.
For example, it's extremely uncool to interrupt a conversation because you have the burning desire to ask the person in the wheelchair what happened to them. Some assholes in clubs congratulate me for being there: "Wow, the fact that you even go out in your wheelchair… I have to congratulate you, man, because if I were in your shoes, I'd lock myself up at home" – that's the kind of thing they'll say.
Generally, going out at night is a social minefield. You do no want to impose on anyone, do as much as you can on your own and be treated like everyone else. This can't really happen. Often, I am just sat in everyone's way at clubs, bars or house parties. I know it's annoying, but there's nothing I can do.
To me, a wheelchair is like a pair of shoes. It's just a tool that makes my life easier, and that's exactly why being reduced to it is so annoying.
I can do certain things with crutches, but for long distances (more than 500 yards or so) or if I'm drunk – I need a wheelchair. Who can walk when they're drunk, anyway? Obviously, I can't hold or carry anything when I'm on crutches so going about my day-to-day business in a wheelchair is a lot easier. But I'll use my crutches if the design of the place I'm going to allows me to park really close to the entrance. Everything changes when you're on crutches: Suddenly, the opposite sex finds you 10 times more attractive. It's interesting how fast a wheelchair makes people overlook what's important.
Then there are those who seem to think that if you are in a wheelchair you are bound to it. Once, an acquaintance was confused when they saw me standing up, playing foosball. Someone else once claimed I was faking it. I don't think I've ever felt more angry in my life. What kind of an idiot do you have to be to think that anyone would use a wheelchair without needing one. I'm obviously doing it for the extra attention, you asshole, and for amazing comments like this one.
But by far the most frustrating part of it is the pity. Maybe there are people who enjoy it but I'm not one of them. Everyone bound to a wheelchair knows that specific, pitiful smile strangers give you on the street. It's a mixture of feigned pleasure and embarrassing sorrow. As if they are ashamed they are not in a wheelchair themselves. I can assure you, life is not half as bad when you're actually in one. So please, just stop it.
To me, a wheelchair is like a pair of shoes. It's just a tool that makes my life easier, and that's exactly why being reduced to it is so annoying. Sadly, from some of the social experiences I've had in the last ten years, I get the feeling that I'll be defined by my chair whether I like it or not.
Then again, it's easy to blame society. Sometimes, the problem starts in your head. Most people I know have had one or two slightly embarrassing experiences with a person in a wheelchair – and that is okay if it means it gets us closer to just being cool with each other. So I guess, there's only one thing I'd like to ask of you: Please, look beyond the wheelchairs. People in them are as diverse as everyone else.