I used to wonder why wheelchairs were not in common use for people with mobility impairments until the twentieth century. Of course, they existed before then. But they weren’t widely used.

It’s odd that I wondered why not. I already knew the answer, although in a slightly different context. When my children were tiny, I carried them in cuddle packs and backpacks. I didn’t even have a stroller for the older three. There were too many places I wanted to go where a stroller just wasn’t practical. Sand and gravel, cobblestones, curbs, stairs, crowds of people, narrow aisles, and broken sidewalks, all presented difficulties for a parent pushing a stroller. But the difficulty disappeared when the baby was on my back.

Sand and gravel, cobblestones, curbs, stairs, crowds of people, narrow aisles, and broken sidewalks also present difficulties for people in wheelchairs. Before paved roads and sidewalks were common, a wheelchair just wasn’t practical.

A cracked and broken sidewalk

This is not a good surface for a wheelchair.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past few days, because my daughter Mary Elizabeth is now a part-time wheelchair user. She’s the child I first wrote Catherine’s Pascha for, and she’s all grown up now. She’s a farmer, and the farm manager and chief agricultural instructor for Roots Memphis Farm Academy.

Getting Around on Rough Terrain

Farming is, of course, one of the most dangerous careers you can choose, and in late May, she had a severe accident on her farm. She spent just over two weeks at the regional trauma center, where she received incredible, compassionate, skillful medical treatment.

She’s recovering at home now, and for three months she won’t be able to use her left leg. So, for now, while she is healing, Mary Elizabeth uses crutches, a walker, and a wheelchair, depending on the circumstances.

Crutches let her get up and down a short flight of stairs safely. A walker is better for moving around the house. For long walks or rough terrain, she needs the wheelchair.

From the Sidewalk to the Street

The problem, of course, is that wheelchairs aren’t any better for rough terrain than strollers were when Mary Elizabeth was little. When we walked to the farmer’s market on Saturday, we planned to stay on the sidewalks. We weren’t interested in arguing with cars over who had the right-of-way for the road.

But the sidewalks were frequently impassable. In one place, the concrete was so badly broken that the wheels of the wheelchair got stuck in the cracks! Garbage cans, cars, and piles of debris from yard work blocked our way. Corners without curb cuts forced us to find a driveway to cross the street.

And, eventually, since we were mostly on side streets, we decided that it was better to just walk in the street.

So that’s what we did. And when we got to the farmers market, the other farmers and some of the regular shoppers who had been missing Mary Elizabeth while she was away, and praying for her, stood and cheered. There were many hugs, and much laughter, and a few tears.

And by the time we made it home from the market with our purchases, I knew that I had to be more mindful of sidewalks in the future. I’ve pulled part way into a driveway before, so that the car was out of the street but blocking a sidewalk. I’ve left branches on the sidewalk while I was working in the yard. It seemed inconsequential at the time.

But it’s not inconsequential. Not for someone who’s using a wheelchair or a walker. And you never know when that someone will be you, or someone you love.

Charlotte Riggle with her daughter, Mary Elizabeth. Mary Elizabeth is using a wheelchair.

At the farmer’s market with Mary Elizabeth.

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Charlotte Riggle, author of Catherine's Pascha and The Saint Nicholas Day Snow
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