My Independent Life Between a Walker and the Wheelchair

Wheelchair vs. Walker

Hi, my name is William Volkmann, I am a 38 year old guy living with Cerebral Palsy (CP). The CP affects me physically and when I was younger I used a walker to help me get around. At nine years old, I was able to walk without any assistant device, but when I turned 27 I developed a medical issue that required me to use a walker again. After a few years of using it again, I noticed it was actually better to use a combination of a walker and wheelchair. I realized that if I wanted to go do anything outdoors, using a wheelchair was the safer option. The safety of the wheelchair allowed me to be more independent and free. What I didn’t see were the stark differences in not only the different ways I have to navigate in public places but also the different barriers and ways people act towards me.

In this article, I would like to put you in my shoes and experience my everyday life of using a walker and a wheelchair.

Let’s start off with the walker. If I’m planning on using it that day, I must know, not only how far I will need to walk, but what obstacles I may encounter along the way. I have to ask myself, “Is there rough terrain? Is the sidewalk uneven? Is the pavement cracked? Is it gravel?” These obstacles increase my risk of tipping over and falling. This isn’t something those who do not have a disability often need to consider when going out. Those of us with a disability, however, we need to put in a significant amount of forethought into our trips. Another consideration for example, is non-automatic doors. Since the walker requires me to use two arms to operate, but the door requires one to open, you can see how I might have some trouble. Unfortunately, we are not born with three arms, so I am forced to hold the door with one and put my walker in with the other. My walker kindly holds the door for me as I slip inside. It’s an awkward dance, but a dance I must do if I expect to get where I’m going.

wheelchairIf I go out to eat at a restaurant most of the time the tables are so close together, I have to ask people to move their chairs in, which can be embarrassing. I have to interrupt people’s meals or I am forced to walk sideways with the walker, which creates an unsafe action on my part. I experience a similar problem when I go out shopping. Most stores have aisles wide enough that I can fit down them, but random displays or unattended carts cause me to have the same problem as in a restaurant. Ramps, although helpful can be dangerous, both with a walker or a wheelchair. If they are not maintained or were built too steep, they could lead to me taking a nasty tumble. I could tip over the walker trying to stay steady or, when I’m in the wheelchair, I could pick up too much speed where I can’t stop and end up in the parking lot.

Standing VS Sitting

van aisleAfter using a walker for so long, when I first got in my wheelchair, I felt a new sense of freedom now since it allowed me to travel safely to new destinations. In my head, I naively thought everywhere would be was wheelchair accessible and friendly. Instead a found a whole new set of problems. This is particularly true when it comes to taking a wheelchair with you when driving. When you park in a “van accessible” disabled spot, most of them are not wide enough to get your wheelchair out when I use the lift on the side of my van. This means I have to take special care to measure the spot with my eyes before I park. One of the hospitals I go to is a rehabilitation hospital, where people with disabilities go for treatment, but even here, their parking lot is a mess. They have no disabled van spaces big enough to get my lift out of the van, so I have to make my own space. So when you see a van parked awkwardly, don’t think “this jerk just parks wherever he wants!” instead know that I’m parking there because I have no place else to park.

Shopping is also a whole different animal. If the store doesn’t have an automatic door, you have to rely on other customers to open the door for you (same goes for bathroom doors). I’m used to being at standing level and I can bathroomtell you, shopping is a different experience when you do it from a seated position. I still run into the same “space” issues as when I’m in the walker, but now I also have to deal with the fact that the shelves are not as accessible. The height of the shelves keep me from not only being able to see the products displayed, but even if I could see them, I can’t reach them. I don’t want to rely on others to help me with my shopping, but I end up having to ask other customers or store staff for assistance. Another thing is, when you are in a restaurant or a store, when you need to use the bathroom. Sure, they have disabled bathroom stalls but the doors to enter the bathroom are usually not automatic. This is not good in many ways. I’ve lived in many places as an adult. I was struck by, when I lived in Houston, how many stores had the disabled button automatic doors installed and when I moved back to New Jersey how few stores offered it. This is something that as a state, we should be doing more to change.

Trading One Problem for Another

There are also differences with how people treat you. When people see me with a walker, their first response is a little shock on their face. That being said, people tend to adjust a bit smoother when we start talking (even with my speech disability). It’s less smooth when I’m in a wheelchair. People tend to treat me like a child or totally ignore me. Sometimes I see employees pretend I’m not there and walk right pass me, even if I’m trying to engage them to ask a question. Other times, people who engage with me act like I’m dumb or assume I have some kind of intellectual disability. They may slow down their speech, the way you would speak to a four year old (I’m 38). It’s still me standing or sitting, but there is still a cemented stigma surrounding people who use wheelchairs. This is offensive and can ruin my day if I let it.

Sometimes I do an experiment where if I get treated like I do in a wheelchair, I will go back to the same place a few weeks later with my walker, and I get treated totally different. This is the biggest difference I see between a walker and wheelchair. There are both physical limitations on a walker and a wheelchair. In my experience one isn’t better than the other. You’re really just trading one set of issues for another. I know a lot of this must sound negative, but if we want to see positive changes in how people act and treat people with disabilities, these issues need to be addressed. I know the squeakiest wheel on my wheelchair is the one that gets the attention, so I’m going to make some noise until we see progress. I hope this article will open some eyes and encourage people to address the issues surrounding both the physical and mental barriers that affect people with disabilities.

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10 thoughts on “My Independent Life Between a Walker and the Wheelchair”

  1. Thank you for sharing William. Your article was very educational. People without disabilities have no idea of what people with disabilities go through as a routine. Your description of how you were treated differently with your walker vs. your wheelchair is sad to me. I believe it is fear. People ignore the wheelchair because they are frightened of it. Frightened that they may someday need one. Just an observation of mine. Anyway, thanks for sharing!

  2. Thank you William for your article.I am 77 years old with arthritis and scoliosis and started having problems with balance and stability while trying to get around. Because of a stubborn mentality, I have avoided using any devices other than an occasional cane. After a lot of pestering by my kids, I tried using a friends walker. I was very pleased and surprised by the ease of using it and the confidence I had using it. I recently bought one for myself making sure it was the right size for me. I am able to walk every day now with my small dog, who trots along beside me and never gets in the way. Thanks again for your piece.

  3. Bathroom doors are a problem if they are not automatic. I complain to every establishment where I encounter difficulty with the doors.

  4. This is an interesting blog for people who want to get a better understanding of what people with disabilities sometimes have to go through. Really valuable.

  5. Hi William, I think you hit all the right stuff! I have been in a wheelchair on and off since I was 19 after being diagnosed withDermatomyositis. I think my biggest pet peeve is when people think you are mentally disabled along with being physically disabled. That really hurts especially when someone in your own family does it.

  6. Hey William! I am in the same predicament. I had polio as a child, now 72, and have experienced the decline in mobility due to post-polio and falling and fracturing my femur. I have to decide whether to use a Loftstrand crutch, rollator walker, or power chair. I am an OT. I hate it when people won’t look at me. I hate depending on others for anything. I will usually figure out a way. It might not be pretty, but so what.
    The power chair affords me the most independence and is most functional for ADL. It conserves my energy and makes me more productive, and keeps my back from hurting! But, it does not maintain my ability to balance, Eliminates the opportunity for strengthening my legs and core, and non-wt bearing contributes to osteoporosis.
    So, I use the powerchair for distances and speed, the rollator for in-home or short shopping trips, and am about to give up the Lofstrand. It is bad for my hand, and has resulted in carpal tunnel surgery. Plus it gives me only one hand to use for carrying or anything else.
    I admire your perseverance and your advocacy for all of us who must depend on a mobility device. Thanks for your very insightful article!

  7. Thank you for this blog. I have both powerchair and rollator in my car but really can only walk about 30 ft max, so I usually am using the powerchair. My illnesses are MECFS (post viral 30 yrs now), small fiber neuropathy (dx’d with biopsy) and a connected tissue disorder. I am also fat. After trying bypass surgery and only dropping 10% of my weight, my doc says it’s just not fixable. She doesn’t know if it’s the SFN affecting things or what but it is what it is. The fat thing matters because along with the other issues folks using helper devices have, when one is fat the presumption is that I’m just lazy and using the wheelchair so I don’t have to exercise. So it’s actually harder to get people to help me. So, I just stay home 99% of the time. It’s sad. Y’know?

  8. Thank you for the informative information! I’ve been searching the internet for quite some time when I found your presentation. But I have a different problem. I’m a retired psychology professor, 76 years old. Two years ago I had my right hip replaced and my right leg lengthened to match my left one (7 cm). I had in house PT for two weeks and outpatient PT for one and a half years. The PT included therapy for my lack of balance. I continue the therapy at home, daily for an hour each day. I can walk with my walker as long as I have one finger on a handle…psychological thing. My body and legs are fine, but the balance problem is still in my head. “Physician, heel thyself” comes to mind. Any suggestions? Thanks for listening. Ronn.


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