Sunday, December 11, 2011


How about those old-time FDR wheelchairs? All wicker and wood, rigid and perpendicular. As agile and nimble as a covered wagon. As comfortable as an X-ray table.

Whenever I see one of those FDR wheelchairs, I get a bad case of the willies. But it’s way worse than just the willies. It’s a cold, deep shudder.

What if I was a cripple back then? I didn’t miss by much. Just make me about 15 years older and there I am. Having an FDR wheelchair was the best cripples back then could hope for. That was our shining symbol of hope and liberation. Back then, I’d have been sooooooo screwed. I’d have been stranded if I had to get around by pushing an FDR wheelchair. Hell, even those linebacker cripples of today who do marathons in their wheelchairs would be stranded if all they had were FDR wheelchairs. That’s the equivalent of trying to run a marathon in a potato sack.

And what about way way way back, back before there were even any FDR wheelchairs? What was the symbol of hope and liberation for a cripple like me way back then? Leeches? The doctors cover me with leeches that can suck all the muscular dystrophy out of me? Then what? Way back then, cripples like me were thoroughly, comprehensively, inalterably screwed.

Do you ever go to historical re-enactments? Do you ever notice that there are no cripples in historical re-enactments? That’s because whatever the period in history, the cripples were screwed. The only cripples people ever saw were blind beggars, village idiots and Helen Keller.

Seeing an FDR wheelchair gives me the intense willies the same way I used to get the willies when I was a kid and the disabled veterans called our house selling light bulbs. My mother could’ve bought light bulbs anywhere, but she waited for the disabled vets to call so she could order light bulbs and help a good cause at the same time. But it gave me the hard-boiled willies. Is that what cripples do when they grow up, I wondered, sell light bulbs over the phone? Is that the best we can hope for? And these were disabled veterans, too. These were the guys who saved us from the Nazis and the Communists. If all a grateful nation had to offer them was a chance to sell light bulbs over the telephone, then an ordinary cripple like me was invariably, inevitably, inescapably screwed.

I see an FDR wheelchair, and what grabs me is beyond the willies. It’s more like survivor guilt. I just barely escaped. Make me 15 years older and I would’ve been screwed like the cripples of yore. The bullets that took them down whizzed right past my head.

Survivor guilt can make it hard to have fun, if you’re not careful. You can get caught up in feeling like you’re disrespecting those who didn’t make it if you’re not perpetually somber, like a black-veiled widow. But I feel better when I do the opposite and get out there and have fun on behalf of the cripples of yore. I make it my business to have all the fun they weren’t allowed to have. It makes having fun twice the fun because I feel like I’m getting even.


  1. Millions of us would not only be screwed, we'd be dead in those days with the conditions we are now completely cured of or able to live with. Yeah for now! There's a lot of room for improvement, but we've come a long way.

  2. Yeah, I'd be dead, worse, I'd die miserable and hopeless. VIVA 2011 !!!!!!!!!!

  3. Multiple Sclerosis would've wiped me off the damn earth.

  4. Viva le wheelchair! Viva the light as a feather racing chairs! Viva the bottom loaded so-as-not-to-tip-over-easily powerball chair! Viva my heavier than me power chair that gives me mobility and freedom. Think i'll go tip a few for the FDR wheelchair users of yore too!

  5. I think what they had was pony carts if they were well to do (like Anna Sewell), and skateboard-ish things if they weren't (like The Rat in "The Lost Prince").

  6. I actually did used to go to Society for Creative Anachronism medieval reenactments in my manual chair in the early 1990s, & at the annual national (US) gathering in August, "Pennsic," I found several other w/c users, including the head of the archery guild, & a Viking Rune Stone & jewelry merchant. Most of us did try to do something to quasi-camouflage our chairs with velvet blankets or just something to try to make it look less 'mundane' (SCA slang for modern stuff). There were rumors that one guy had made a wheelbarrow & had servants to push him around, but I never saw it.
    If I had been able to do the carpentry, or had the assistance to do so, I would have made a replica of Stephen Farfler's self-propelled manual chair that was kinda like a wooden hand-cycle. I did an Environmental Design grad school project on the history of wheelchair development in the early 1990s, before I had access to the internet, & according to the library books I used at the time, he was French & invented it in 1536, which would make it 'period' (SCA slang for things in existence from 600AD to 1600AD). Unfortunately, various internet sources give different info, including some saying he was German instead of French, & have a variety of invention dates (1655, 1635, 1665, etc.) that are not 'period,' but it would have been much more so than the "Swede Elite" manual chair I was trying to camouflage, & certainly more so than my Star-Trek-looking Permobil powerchair if I was still in the SCA today.
    Stephen Farfler's invention:
    I'm actually curious about how well it would move, & if it is the same/better/worse than a FDR w/c. ;)