Read the story of our writer Raya Al-Jadir about how a wheelchair bike change her life as a disabled child and how important physical activity may be, even if you’re not fully aware of it.
Raya is a freelance writer and a member of Muscular Dystrophy UK’s Trailblazers who has written for many outlets like Disability horizons or The Huffington Post.
Before I moved to the UK at the age of nine years old, I lived in Iraq where disability was a rarity, as were the required, accessible facilities. This meant my family and I had to improvise to enable me to experience everything that other children experienced regularly.
I was born with congenital muscular dystrophy and have never walked. A difficult concept when you are surrounded by active children, inaccessible buildings, and, basically, an environment that is far from appropriate for someone living with physical and, indeed, any other disability. Yet, ironically, at the time I never felt different, nor did I see myself as deprived of anything. The reason for that is that I was always on my tricycle or bike, racing from one place to another. I was always active with something. When I couldn’t manage something, my sister or brother would carry me to wherever I could not reach.
Thanks to my trusted bike, I was able to go to school and join other children. They just thought I was a spoilt child rather than a disabled one. I guess that was another incentive for me – not showing others my weakness or disability. Also, relying on the bike for mobility meant my leg muscles were constantly working, delaying the inevitable and debilitating effects of muscular dystrophy.
As soon as I arrived in the UK, it was decided that I must now use a wheelchair and gone were the days of bikes and tricycles. It was as though using a wheelchair was an improvement. However, I was given a manual wheelchair that was simply too hard for me to push, as my legs were stronger than my arms at the time. Obviously, in order to move around on my own, I needed something that could maintain that strength, and not the opposite.
When medical professionals realised that I was struggling, they gave me an electric wheelchair. This basically meant I became idle – no part of my body was active and gradually I lost all the strength that I had.
Recently I became acquainted with the term wheelchair bike. Something I never knew existed and wish I knew about years ago. If I had known such a thing was available, it would have been my first option. It is a way of moving a wheelchair with a pedal, powered by a person’s arms. Don’t get me wrong – I love my wheelchair immensely, as without it I would and could not survive. However, as a child I would have benefited greatly from a wheelchair bike. I could have kept the strength that I had in my arms for a bit longer. Deterioration is inevitable with muscular dystrophy but the practice of sport can have a beneficial influence, as I explained before.
A few weeks ago, I was out and saw an adult using a wheelchair bike. It was the first time that I actually saw one and thought ‘what a great combination of being active and mobile at the same time’. Obviously, it is not suitable for me now, as my body and muscle strength have changed dramatically since my childhood days. I do, however, think this is great for anyone who does not want to – in a way – be confined in an electric wheelchair and still has enough strength in their arms to use it. It seemed like an ideal way to maintain body strength and enjoy the experience of cycling. Something that many disabled people might not know or be familiar with due to their physical ability. Just as I didn’t know earlier.
A wheelchair bike can be a step forward to a better society
People living with a disability don’t get to live out certain experiences. So inventing gadgets that make it possible to be included in society is a hugely positive thing. A much-needed initiative. Innovation could make our world a more equal one with opportunities available for everyone, and not just the selected few who have the right ability or background or finance.
For the naked eye, a wheelchair bike is just a wheelchair bike, but for others – and especially in my own view – it is a step closer to equality.