ENABLING THE DISABLED
Crutches, A Wheelchair and
Gail E. Ferris
Ah ha! now it is time for invention as I found
myself confined to a wheelchair but I happen to live just a short distance
from Long Island Sound.
So little is thought about the realities involved
when one finds that they happen to be physically disabled whether it happens
unexpectedly or can be anticipated.
The most unpleasant aspect of finding that one can no longer do things
in the usual manner is the feeling of boredom resulting from lack of
enjoyment of the old challenges no longer possible to enjoy.
I encountered this situation while recovering
from orthopedic surgery, which required a six months of no walking. Stoically I thought I could tolerate this
period of inactivity but as time passed I began to realize that I had to do
some serious thinking as to how I could get on the water all by myself.
Between me and the launch site are continuous
I had a wheelchair and a pair of crutches as my
means of travel. My right leg could
not tolerate for any protracted period of weight bearing which was why I was
using the wheelchair.
As I evaluated my options I knew that I wanted to
be able to travel down to the town dock and restaurant where I could visit
some of my friends with complete self sufficiency and with the most minimal
risk to my healing leg. The last thing
I wanted to experience is the ordeal of a repeat operation and neither did my
A formidable obstacle was a rather steep but
short hill which had to be negotiated.
As I found through experimentation on a less steep part of the hill it
is much easier to ascend a hill in a wheelchair by going backward propelling
myself by pulling instead of pushing the wheels and combining the pulling
with pushing from my right leg. Indeed
I found that I could go amazingly fast but that I had to be careful not to
hit something and dump the wheelchair over backward, which is very easy to actually
Now that I had figured out how to go up hill by
Now I had to find a way of descending the hill
without burning the skin off my hands, which is the only means I knew of for
slowing the wheelchair down. I may be
daring but I am not going to zoom down any hills without checking the speed
in a wheelchair. I recalled that I had
some tough bicycling gloves, which I realized would be excellent for
preventing any blisters from forming on my hands and were pigskin thickly
padded enough to work well for braking.
I tried the bicycling gloves and they worked well being very
I made numerous trips once I had created by
sewing on my sewing machine a quiver to hold my crutches on the back of my
wheel chair in a vertical easy to reach position. I could not consider any walking and would
be almost completely helpless without crutches. The quiver was attached to my wheelchair by
being tied on with sewn on ties. But
as I wandered around town on it's sidewalks, which were a great help for this
type of travel because the sidewalks separated me from the cars, and were
flat and smooth.
I began to use a backpack bag on the back of the
wheelchair to hold items I bought and found that the bag worked very well for
things like eggs and milk. But there
was the water out there every day beckoning me, Long Island Sound with blue
sunny skies overhead, but how was I to enjoy the water.
I went swimming a few times, but that was too
easy and the tide had to be accounted for which I have no patience with. I had experimented with swimming without
using my legs and found that there are several methods available but that the
easiest method of swimming was by clamping a life jacket between my legs and
swimming the breaststroke with my arms.
With this technique I could swim long distances with minimal
expenditure of energy. This I realized
I could rely on should I have a boating emergency. But how was I going to be possibly able to
take a boat to the water from my house a half a mile away with that steep
hill to first decent and on my return ascend.
Now really, the idea of towing some sort of kayak
on a trailer behind my wheelchair seemed suicidal at the least. Just the sheer weight of the kayak on wheels
would really push me down the hill, let alone steering it and staying on the
sidewalk. Now that would be a really good trick!
But how about using an inflatable boat, one that
folds up small, just small enough to fit on my wheelchair?
I just happened to own an inflatable kayak which
weighed about twenty five pounds but the next question was did the boat fold
small enough to fit on the back of the wheelchair and was it's weight and
position on the wheelchair going to ruin the stability of the wheelchair
causing it to fall over backward and be difficult to steer.
After extracting my trusty old inflatable kayak
from it's lair in the cellar which was a good cool dark very suitable place
to store this PVC kayak.
I found that my rough estimate of size was ranged
closely enough to just fit onto the back of my wheelchair.
I just needed to sew a strong bag, which would
hold the boat and hang on the handles in the back. I knew I was really going to carry out this
experiment because not only the width but the length of the kayak folded
would fit onto the back without binding on the wheels or hanging down too
low. Some simple loop handles on the
bag were all that was necessary to hang the bag. The bag was made large enough not only to
accommodate the kayak but also the pump and life jacket as well.
The take-apart paddles fit without any problem
into the quiver for holding the crutches.
Wow what a scene, I could imagine that when I
traveled down the sidewalk with all this paraphernalia on my wheelchair and I
in it, I must have looked like someone from an outer space scene in which is
said “Beam me up Scotty." Oh
well, I was going boating regardless of circumstances.
My first excursion and indeed it was just that
started with precariously positioning the kayak in its bag on the back of the
wheelchair which turned out to be a balancing act in the truest sense of the
word. I found that I had to hold the
front of the chair down by quickly hanging the bag on the handles in the back
while keeping myself upright on crutches and wedging my body against the back
of the chair. Next while keeping my
hand on the armrest to keep the chair from falling over backward, as they do
pivot nicely on those wheels, to become seated just in the nick of time
leaning forward using my body weight to counterbalance the weight of the boat
so that the front wheels would be on the ground not only to stabilize but
also to steer the wheelchair. Just a
little bit of juggling to not crash and burn in my wheelchair.
Now as I proceeded out of my yard you can just
imagine me as I just pulled on my wheels to start off I nearly lurched over backward
under the awkward weight of my cargo, the kayak. Then I lurched forward. To continue going forward I had to
consciously counterbalance myself forward to keep my wheelchair from pitching
Luckily from past excursions down the sidewalk
and steep hill I knew enough to wear leather palmed bicycle gloves. So, armed
with my trusty bicycling gloves, which I wore to protect my palms while
breaking the wheel chair, I proceeded down the hill.
I progressed down the steep hill without any
problems and headed for the next less steep stretch.
Then suddenly inexplicably the wheels started
binding on the boat and oddly enough the chair started squeezing me. Progress halted as I put on the mechanical
brakes and got out to inspect the strange situation.
Nothing feels funnier than the sensation of a
collapsible wheelchair folding up on you when you are going down hill. The whole problem was caused by the weight
of the boat on the back pulling not just downward but laterally on the
handles in the back.
The chair has a scissors structure, which is
normally closed by being pushed together and then can be easily be
transported as a compressed rectangle.
The bag had done this for me. The
wheel chair was scissoring shut and I can tell you that was quite a strange
feeling. I got out and reopened the wheelchair. Then I found some cord which I used to tie
the chair open with some strong cord.
Whew that was a trick!
So now once again I wheeled along on this my
maiden voyage down the side walk to the town beach.
And wow! the chair stayed open most of the rest
of the trip. I just had to stop once
and retie the chair open with the cords.
Once I was at the beach and I hit the sand all
progress in my wheelchair. The wheels
as could be expected just sank deeply in the sand. I got out retrieved my crutches took my
boat bag off it and parked it.
I knew from numerous experiments that my crutches
would dig into the sand but they would keep me upright because the sand had
much more resistance than mud.
From earlier experiments during the winter I
found that mud unless it is frozen can easily render crutches instantly
invisible among other things.
my boat bag on the sand, tied a line about twenty feet long to it and walked
to its end, stopped and pulled to bag to me.
that without much effort I could drag the kayak in its bag over the sand
because I had made the bag of slippery nylon.
this operation until I got the boat bag a comfortable place to take out,
unfold and proceed with a foot operated pump inflate the three chambers of
the kayak was a slow procedure but the sacrifice was worth the escape from
the monotony escaping of the wheelchair.
The kayak was thirteen feet long with three chambers and a separate
the kayak was inflated, I dragged it into the water just to the point at
which it could float but that I could still support myself on crutches.
this point I did not want to bother with putting them back up the beach with
the wheelchair. I just couldn’t be
bothered with hopping on one leg that was just a silly idea.
the moment of how to get in, how do I do this? There I was with this little
problem that the muscles in my recovering leg were not able to contract
enough to elevate the leg or bend my leg at the knee. In other words my leg was just a stiff
heavy and unmovable.
how do I get my body into the kayak?
Use gravity! Just sort of flop in and drag the rest of myself in. Or maybe sort of get down onto the gunwale
and roll in.
knew that I can crawl, I can get up and I can always get down some how, and I
can roll over.
into the cockpit over the inflated tubular gunwale worked out just fine.
decided now is launch time so I put my hands on the gunwales supporting myself
on one leg relying on my hands for balance and put the crutches on the floor
of the kayak, position the seat over them and proceeded to more or less roll
into the cockpit.
there I was in my kayak slightly afloat.
get off the beach I used my two-piece paddles as push poles to push me out
into the water.
I was off once again on the water in my kayak.
there I was out there on the water where I immediately discovered that
sitting on my crutches made my inflatable kayak paddled much faster and I
wished I had thought of that idea sooner.
swimming for exercise I devised a stroke I could use should I have no use of
my legs and no lifejacket. The stroke
was essentially undulating using just my back through the water coming up for
air between undulations.
again at last I could enjoy this wonderful element water with its marshes and
waves and I was free from the problems of travel on land.
Gail Ferris is launching by
pulling her kayak backward over the ice from Stony Creek beach.
Lars Jensen has an artificial
hip he is launching his kayak in Kullorsuaq Greenland.