How do wheelchairs get down stairs?


Pete Donnelly demonstrates how to make the most of your wheelchair

Using a wheelchair isn't always easy. Although some master advanced moves, most people just want to get safely from A to B - and that's when a wheelchair skills course can help.

Dilemma: You're in a wheelchair. You need to get to the other side of a road but there are no crossings and no "dropped" kerbs. It looks like you're in for a heavy bump down and a challenge to get back up again once you've crossed over. How do you do it?

"They teach you to do a little wheelie on to the road, and another little wheelie to get up the kerb on the opposite side," says Maisie McGarvey, 17, from Yorkshire, who benefited from wheelchair skills classes when she was younger.

Aaron Fotheringham performs a stunt in his wheelchair during Nitro Circus Live at Westpac Stadium on February 9, 2013 in Wellington, New Zealand Athlete Aaron Fotheringham performs extreme stunts in his wheelchair

Maisie contacted the charity Go Kids Go when she was 10. She wanted to be able to do sport but was not confident enough in her chair to do the fast moves or turns required. "They taught me to approach using a wheelchair in a positive way." They've been running since 1990 and count Paralympian and TV presenter Ade Adepitan as a former student.

The wheelies she describes are useful to master but can be quite challenging for some, so skills classes tend to start by concentrating on less risky moves.

Wheelchair whizz

Pete Donnelly

Pete Donnelly became disabled in a motorbike accident in 2006. He has a T6 spinal cord injury, meaning he's paralysed from the chest down.

He has been teaching wheelchair skills for five years and is quite advanced.

In the video at the top of this page, he demonstrates how to bring a beer back from the bar when at a pub - a useful and sociable skill.

"I'll hold my pint in one hand and push off one wheel and then swap the pint to the other hand and push off the other wheel. And while this is quite a difficult motion to get started, once you get the momentum built up, it's quite easy to get to your table. "

He also negotiates stairs in his chair - but advises others not to attempt this without training.

For some, being independent means being able to push from kitchen to lounge while carrying cups of tea, to wheel up ramps or get back into the wheelchair after a fall. It doesn't have to be trial and error to learn these techniques - experienced wheelchair users run tutorial sessions to pass on their skills.

Pete Donnelly volunteers for spinal injury charity Back Up, where he teaches other paralysed people how to get the most from their chairs. He demonstrates several daily skills in the video above. "It's not about doing a lot of tricks," Pete cautions. "It's about doing what you need to do to get back to the life you want to live."

The Whizz-Kidz charity also run skills classes. It provides chairs for children but wants recipients to "know how to use them, to have fun and to be safe".

Magda has cerebral palsy and is a pupil at a special school in Croydon where Whizz-Kidz held a skills class. She recalls a slalom course so the children could practice weaving around obstacles on busy streets.

"We also learned how to get through a door without it hitting us," says Magda. "You have to push with one hand and hold the door with the other until you are through."

When out and about, Magda's mother used to wheel her, but now she feels confident pushing along the pavement on her own.

Shaun, 15, uses a manual wheelchair and has cerebral palsy. He wanted to travel to school with friends by public bus, rather than be collected by the school's own minibus. Trainers from Whizz-Kidz showed him strategies to achieve this.

The most obvious advice may well be the best. "They told me to make sure the driver can see me," says Shaun, "so I don't have to ask for the ramp."

A wheelchair skills class Learning to negotiate ramps

The classes taught him to trust that his wheelchair's belt would hold him securely. He was then able to concentrate on getting up the ramp onto the bus with both hands pushing the wheels. He learned how to reverse into the bus's wheelchair space, which involved practicing small pushes to remain stable, learning how to stop at the right time and constantly checking what's happening behind him.

Shaun and Magda see wheelchair users every day at their special school but Maisie McGarvey has always been in mainstream education.

Her introduction to the wheelchair world was at a skills workshop. "I didn't even realise that there were other wheelchair users out there, let alone ones my age."

Having benefited from meeting other wheelchair users at these events, Maisie now helps out as much as she can with the charity that helped her when she was younger.

Tim Rushby-Smith was paralysed six years ago after falling from a tree. While in rehab, he was given advice on how to reach full potential with a chair by someone who had, like him, received a spinal cord injury.

He says his trainer talked in a straightforward way about everyday things such as "getting in and out of cars, meeting people and just getting on with things".

The newly disabled Tim was inspired by the experience. Now a proficient wheelchair user himself, Tim, like Maisie, also volunteers his skills and says: "I want to give something back."

Wheelchair skills class

Tim is keen to pass on the art of falling safely - or, more importantly, he likes to teach how to transfer from the ground back in to the chair.

"At the beginning, falling out of your wheelchair feels like falling off a cliff. The safest position to adopt when tipping out is to grab the chair's frame in front and tuck your chin into your chest.

"The most common injury is banging your head on the ground, so falling on rolled shoulders is better."

Tim has had his fair share of spills and has been surprised and distressed when passers-by have come over and attempted to pick him up by the legs to get him back on his wheels.

Some can fix it for themselves, others need to get help. "Knowing when and how to ask for support is part of the training too," says Tim.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I don't understand.

    Wheelchairs cost £200? Plus car, flat, etc. £10,000+.
    Plus ramps/lifts/toilets/buses everywhere costing billions.

    The world is suited to legs. It's the 21st century. Why not a slim, lumbar-supporting robotic leg-chair?

    Able to sit in it in any car, go upstairs to the toilet at a friend's, go along rabbit paths and look people in the eye instead of up their nostrils.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I wish I could use my wheelchair like this - sadly, I have pervasive muscle weakness and chronic pain. I can't even propell myself more than a few meters. I can only use a chair with assistance.
    It takes a huge degree of muscle strength and endurance to use a wheelchair as expertly as these individuals - much kudos to them for their hard work and perseverence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I don't know but, should it not be a part of the building code for Handicap's to have proper access to a building. It should not be that hard .Ramps, Elevators & Easy access.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Solution for carrying objects (pint in the pub etc.): A lever, operated with either hand, that engages both wheels to the axle, so pushing one wheel rolls both.

    Stairs are the biggest indoor safety hazard for everyone. Full accessibility needs to be the rule in all construction: so everyone who lives to older age can stay in their own home if they choose. This affects almost all of us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    @buzzcorecrew. This is an ideal subject for HYS. Parrotting the same stuff about bankers/Labour/Tories/multinationals achieves nothing. Maybe a little empathy with our fellow humans can improve the world a little.


Comments 5 of 14


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