In a Wheelchair

Cliff Williams
Department of Philosophy
Trinity College
Deerfield, Illinois 60015

 
When Kristin Newby was 17, she fell out of a tree and broke her neck. That landed her in a wheelchair, a quadriplegic. She could move her right arm so as to maneuver the lever of her motorized chair. She could also write with that arm by having someone strap a pen around the palm of her hand. Her writing was slow and somewhat uneven, but it was clearly legible, and she could write an hour-long test, though she required an extra twenty minutes to do so. Her left hand was limp, however. You could not shake her hand using that one.

Kristin came to Trinity College when she was 28. I saw her one day on campus and went over to say hello. We struck up a friendship, and the following year she took a course from me.

One day it occurred to me that it would be engaging to roll around campus with her. She agreed. So she had her mother bring her hand wheelchairto school, I got in, and we “strolled” here and there. She manipulated the lever of her motorized chair and I rotated the wheels of the mechanical one. We stopped now and then to talk, but mostly we moved around on the campus sidewalks, being careful not to get too close to the edges so as to avoid tipping over. Afterwards we made plans for more strolls.

On one of these expeditions we were headed up the sidewalk beside the library. It was a little difficult for me to go up the incline—not impossible, but hard enough so that to the visitor who happened to be nearby thought I was struggling. He pushed me up the incline, I thanked him, and Kristin and I continued rolling. After a bit we headed toward McLennan Academic Building. When we got to the parking lot adjacent to the building, I got out of the chair, folded it, and put it into her mother’s van. I walked to the entrance of the building while Kristin rolled beside me. Just then the visitor walked past. His face registered astonishment. I smiled at him, said hello, and kept walking but did not explain what was going on.

Kristin and I have continued our strolls since her graduation, branching out to a nearby forest preserve and downtown Chicago. On none of these occasions has she complained about her restricted life. When I asked her about the fall out of the tree and her ambulance ride to the hospital, she told me the details without a trace of bitterness or resentment. Her normal talking voice is even and calm, and its gentle peacefulness works its way into me. I part from her with a sense of having been with someone who is at peace with her life.