Nov 29, 2011

Moving legs?

Marcus from Calgary, Alberta asks:

The other day, I was at the mall and we saw a girl in a wheelchair. She was talking with a friend and suddenly she crossed her legs by herself. Was she faking it? Is there something that I don't know about?


Ah, what you are doing here is making assumptions. No worries, you're not the first one to do it. I blame it partly on the rapid increase of disability awareness in society, particularly awareness of spinal cord injuries.

The world was thrown in the "spinal cord injury awareness frenzy" when actor Christopher Reeve was injured and paralyzed from the neck down. In addition, we already had public figures such as Stephen Hawking. Both of them are perhaps the most globally wide-spread influences on spinal cord injury awareness.

What is similar between those two is their inability to walk. By "inability to walk," I mean they are not able to walk, PERIOD. Zero steps. The reasoning behind it seems simple – Christopher Reeve had a broken spinal cord and Stephen Hawking had a paralyzing medical condition.


As a whole, humans often see things in black and white. You either "can" or you "can't." To be somewhere between the two is hard to understand. The common perception is that someone who uses a wheelchair "can't" walk.

And it is often incorrect.

A wheelchair, by definition, is an assistive device. It is designed to allow people to get around more easily. For example, think about senior citizens. Many of them can walk but some cannot walk very well or efficiently, so whenever the family takes them out somewhere, they might have the senior citizen use a wheelchair to make it easier and less stressful. On the same coin, some people may have conditions or injuries that make independent walking difficult, inefficient or downright exhausting.

Using spinal cord injury as an example, not all people with spinal cord injury are unable to walk. Even for someone whose injury is at the neck level, he/she may be able to move his/her arms or hands to a certain extent. Some can even take a few steps. This is called an "incomplete spinal cord injury," meaning that the spinal cord's nerves were not completely severed and some movement or function remains.

We don't know if the girl you saw at the mall had a spinal cord injury, but if she did, it would be an incomplete injury, which explains why she was able to move her legs – that is actually my situation as well, as I still have some movement in my legs and can take a couple of steps with assistance.

Another possibility is that she has a condition or injury that makes walking difficult or impossible, without resulting in paralysis (such as cerebral palsy). Some people have muscular disorders that prevent them from using their muscles but do not necessarily affect movement. There are many reasons for using a wheelchair other than paralysis.

The most important thing to take from this is that not all people in wheelchairs are paralyzed and some people with paralysis have incomplete paralysis, thus retaining some movement, sensation or control.

It is nice to have spinal cord injury awareness. But just like not all Canadians live in igloos, not all people with spinal cord injury or in wheelchairs are the same either. One person may use a wheelchair for spina bifida, another may use one for spinal cord injury and so on. Everyone is different.