Eleven Years On Wheels

Eleven years ago today, I collected my first wheelchair from NHS Wheelchair services. I’d been nervous about using one, but within hours it was clear what a difference it would make to my life, safety, and independence.

My first chair was basic, made of steel, very strong but super heavy. My NHS wheelchair therapist and technician prioritised safety which meant it was hard for me to propel independently. Despite this it was a gamechanger allowing me to leave home safely and get fewer injuries. Since then, I’ve had ten more chairs and with each I’ve learnt more about my requirements and preferences. To mark my wheelchair anniversary I’ve done a drawing of all my chairs to date.

A digital drawing by Jess Thom of all the wheelchairs she has had. Text at the Top reads Wheelchairs 2011-2022. There is a key on the right that details a code for how wheelchairs were funded – by the NHS (4/11), Access to Work (2/11), Self-funded (4/11) or paid for by wheelchair insurance – so replacing a broken chair that was insured (1/11). The key also shows what happened to the chair the categories include: Broken by pavements (3/11), change of requirements (2/11), broken by Jess’s body (1/11), broke Jess’s body (1/11) and still in use (4/11). Each chair is drawn carefully, their specific details celebrated. The earliest chairs are on the left hand side of the image with the newer chairs to the right. Each chair also specifies the year Jess got it starting in 2011 and the most recent one in 2019. The more recent chairs are sportier and more colourful than the earlier chairs as Jess got more confident about her preferences.


Some experiments didn’t work. For example, my first NHS aluminium chair couldn’t cope with my tics and the backrest broke within three days. Some chairs have been provided by the NHS, some have been part funded by Access To Work and others I’ve saved up for and bought myself or bought on finance and paid off over time.

One thing I learnt quickly as a wheelchair user was that finding the right chair wasn’t just about what it made possible, but also about how easy it felt to move. I’ve done a second drawing in which I plot my chairs over time and by quality of movement.

The images is square and takes the rough form of a graph – along the horizontal axis is Time and the years 2011 through to 2022 are spaced out evenly left to right. Along the vertical access reads Quality of Movement and five categories are spaced out at the bottom is Clunky, above this functional, then easy, then Joy and at the top is Free. Jess’s eleven wheelchairs have been positioned on the chart in relation to when she got them in time and how they feel to use. In the top left her current bright blue wheelchair and bright orange tri-ride power attention give her the most freedom and joy. Her first chair was the most clunky. The image is a colourful celebration of what wheelchairs make possible for Jess.

I’m a self-confessed wheelchair geek and I’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge over the last eleven years, which I shared as an A-Z of Wheelchair Love in a blog post last year. And I’m working on a new post for people at the very start of their journey on wheels, sharing the info that I think a new wheelchair user might need immediately, but which health professionals might not know or think to pass on – look out for that in the weeks to come.

Not all wheelchairs are the same and access to them is often complicated, finding the right chair can take time and, in my experience, involves experimenting with different options. I’m so glad I’ve kept learning and exploring though, as the joy and freedom the right chair can bring is indescribable.

I put off using a wheelchair for ages out of fear of what that meant or what other people would think. I wish someone had told me sooner how amazing wheelchairs are and explained that they’re tools that can be used in many ways.

If a wheelchair might help you or someone you care about, don’t put it off – learn about the options, seek out the perspectives of those with lived experience, and if it could be useful, reach out to me – I’m always happy to talk about wheelchairs!

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