My disability makes even mundane tasks more complicated than they otherwise would be. And I don’t have a surplus of money to buy every piece of adaptive equipment that might look handy. But I like to do things, and I suspect many of you can relate.
As a result, the list of gear that I’ve designed, made or modified over my 17 years using a wheelchair is long and constantly growing: gripping gloves, backpacks, under-chair bags, sports arm sleeves, a wheelchair carrying attachment for a handcycle, a quad-friendly handcycle pedal for my “good” hand, everyday chair sideguards, a portable commode chair light enough to be pedaled to the far side of the earth, a spray cooling system for my handcycle, a bar on which I can independently do pull-ups, an adaptive hammer, a sidecar capable of safely carrying my 6-month-old baby on a handcycle, and even a cross-country sit ski.
In this column, I’ll be looking at a different DIY project or “gear hack” for wheelchair users. How do we make equipment that we already have — or that may already be available but not necessarily designed for someone who uses a chair — more functional and fun?
This month, I’ll cover how to set up an accessible work space to make your DIY projects a little bit easier. Let’s get started:
Work Table: Having a sturdy table that you can roll under is key, as it gives you a stable place to rest your elbows so you can work with both hands. You can do some things with a good lap board, but in my experience, the instability and smaller surface area make working more difficult than with a roll-under table or desk. Whether it’s in a garage or inside your home, you want the surface to be something solid that you don’t care about getting dinged, cut, or otherwise messed up. Functional doesn’t have to be expensive — some heavy-duty shelving brackets screwed into wall studs just above knee height with a 2-foot deep piece of .75-1inch plywood makes for a great workspace.
Table Vise/Clamps: If you have a garage or a dedicated workspace, do yourself a favor and buy a table vise. Keeping a piece of equipment securely and firmly in place while you work on it can save a lot of hassle. Lots of times, working from a chair, it’s hard to get leverage with tools without using two hands. A table vise can free you up to really crank on something if you need to. Similarly, having a variety of clamps comes in handy to secure what you’re working on, especially if you need to come at something from a funky angle to be able get the right leverage.
Tools: A mechanic’s tool set is a good place to start. Wrenches and ratchets in both standard and metric sizing are useful all the time, and if you have limited grip strength, vice grips are incredibly handy. A tool that is indispensible for DIY projects is a Dremel — a battery powered rotary tool with a variety of attachable heads useful for everything from cutting and drilling to grinding and sanding. They are extremely versatile and easy to use, even with limited hand function.
This is a good point to emphasize the importance of having and using the brakes on your chair if you’re trying to work on anything. Using two hands, especially if you have limited grip strength, is a necessity, and the last thing you want to worry about is your chair wandering away.
And that adapted hammer? A 5-pound dumbbell with a loop of athletic tape around the outside works great. The tape keeps the dumbbell secure (enough) in my floppy hand, and the relatively heavy weight for a hammer lets me generate a good deal of force in a short range of motion.
You can’t do everything with this setup, but for someone on a budget, it makes a great base to start from.
Next column, I’ll be focusing on what to look for and how to modify commercially available backpacks and smaller bags to be functional as a day/travel bag and a removable under-chair bag.
Have your own tricks and tips for making bags work well as a wheeler? We want this column to be interactive, so send me your ideas, and I’ll incorporate reader input into future columns. Happy hacking!
Send questions and ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.