A Brief History of the Wheel
Wheels live outside. Car wheels cascading along pavement, a quiet clicking sound over bits of gravel in the road, or the hum of the highway close by. Pairs and pairs and pairs of wheels on semis that ride as high as the top of the window on my sedan. The lone wheelbarrow wheel. Lawn mower wheels and stroller wheels, gigantic tractor wheels and wagon wheels. Shopping cart wheels lining up in a row outside the grocery. Bike wheels speeding along busy roads to work or zipping around the neighborhood with the sounds of laughter.
The first wheels to come inside our home were benign. A toddler bike—a molded hunk of plastic with handles and two sets of wheels. Our son, 16 months old, with his weakened muscles, could press his feet to the ground and, with help, propel forward. He could move through space, upright, for the first time. The second set of wheels was a ladybug seat—a flat platform on wheels with a back support made of two boards angled together in a V shape—with ladybug patterns on it, and a small tray attached in front to provide a play surface—and to keep our son secure, so he wouldn’t fall out. His physical therapist set him up in it in front of our pots and pans cupboard so he could get into trouble, she said.
The wheel was invented more than 5,500 years ago, probably on the land that is now Iraq, and likely first as a potter’s wheel. The first wheel used for transportation is thought to have come several hundred years later. According to the Smithsonian most inventions mimic nature—the pitchfork and table fork come from a forked branch, the airplane emulates a soaring bird. But apparently there are no wheels in nature. The wheel was a product of pure human innovation.
It was the next set of wheels that brought pause. This was a contraption that I’d never seen the likes of before. A stander. A metal frame with small wheels on the bottom for ease of moving it around. A foot plate—a small platform just a couple inches off the floor. The structure rose up from there—knee pads and a hip support and a big tray for playing just above waist height. The PT showed us how to put our small son in. Our son still not yet a year and a half old. I would get down on one knee, sit him on my up knee, position his feet on the foot plate. Then my grown-up knee would gently lift his hips into position, and I’d fasten a wide velcro strap across his sacrum, covering his entire rear end, to hold his hip joints steady, unable to bend. Our son is standing up. For the first time. But only because this metal contraption with straps is holding him captive. He is unsure. I have a knot in my gut. My husband is dizzy. The whole world tilts. This is good for his bones we’re told. And his digestion. Bearing weight. Standing straight. But this is from another world. This is the real beginning—our portal into the world of equipment.
The root of the word “manual” comes from the Latin and means “of the hand.” A manual wheelchair is propelled forward with hands on the wheels. A power wheelchair is operated, most often, with a joystick. A power chair can also be propelled with sip and puff technology—using one’s breath through a straw-like device, or head array—using the movements of one’s head within a specialized headrest, or a series of switches. And eye gaze technology is actively being explored for use in controlling the power wheelchair. We don’t say “electric” wheelchair because, well, electric chair. We don’t say “motorized” because the word “power” carries more layers, provides a quiet positive connotation for those otherwise unfamiliar. It’s not a car, cart, scooter (though these do exist), contraption, buggy, or anything else people say in order to avoid using the word, “wheelchair.” People who use wheelchairs know what they are called. Somehow, it seems, some people who walk have a fear of using the word wheelchair, especially in relationship to a child.
The wheels in our house have propelled me forward into a community I previously knew nothing about, had no connection with, or understanding of. I’m not sure what I used to think when I passed someone in a wheelchair, but I’m pretty sure I usually looked the other way. I’m pretty sure my mind trained on what was different, and not the same. Now I go twice a week—to take my son to aqua therapy—to a center filled with people of all abilities, from the preschool program to the adult day hab program, and everything between. We see all kinds of wheels there—walker wheels, manual chair wheels, power chair wheels, shower and pool chair wheels, adaptive bike wheels, scooter wheels. All variety of people using wheels—or not using wheels, for mobility. Here the wheel is the norm. There is no sense of other here. No sense of being different, a place we can all settle in to our skin a little more deeply.
After the first few times we get used to the stander—all three of us. And he’s supposed to be in it an hour a day. We work our way up—with the big tray for playing, it becomes easy. Part of the routine. The next wheels in the house are on a wheelchair—which by comparison is tame. It’s a borrowed manual wheelchair, from the PT. It’s too big but will serve as a trial until he gets his own in a few months. We have to stuff a throw pillow behind his back so he sits far enough forward for his knees to bend. We put my yoga blocks on the footplate so his feet will reach, and use a yoga strap around his chest to keep him from falling forward. We give it a go, inside first, then outside on the driveway. The size is prohibitive, but he can make some movements! And with help he can really cruise! Our close friend and neighbor calls hello from her second story window across the street. Later she will come over and give me a squeeze and whisper into my ear, “You are so brave.”
I can now hear eight-year-old Oscar coming from the other end of the house, not because I hear the slap of bare feet or the stomping of sneakers but because I hear the floor boards creak under the weight of his wheels. I hear the hum of the motor on his chair. Out on the driveway in winter Oscar makes graceful loops and curves as his tires lift the white snow to reveal the black pavement beneath. There is a grace, a smoothness, to his movements as he speeds back and forth on flat surfaces that is unachievable by the human body alone. Even the most adept dancers can never move with this particular quality of fluidity. One winter day as I went to volunteer at Oscar’s school I walked along the sidewalk lining the whole front of the school—snow packed tight by thousands of unrecognizable boot prints, one layer upon another. No parent, had others been present, could have found evidence of their child’s steps among the mosaic. And then I saw it. The remnants of tire tracks amidst all the boots, and I knew a portion of the exact path my son had traversed that very morning.
Sally Bittner Bonn is the Director of Youth Education at Writers & Books in Rochester, NY. Her writing has been featured in The Big Brick Review, Monday Coffee and Other Stories of Mothering Children with Special Needs, Listen to Your Mother: Rochester, and in the permanent public art display Poets Walk in Rochester, NY, among other places. She writes about parenting and disability issues and is at work on a memoir about raising her son Oscar who builds his own Lego characters, spouts endless information about Greek myths, and drives a power wheelchair.