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How Do I Make My Outdoor Space Power Chair-Friendly?

I don’t let myasthenia gravis (MG) stop me from being outside and enjoying the things I love. But how do I make that happen when I’m in a power chair? While I don’t have or use all the suggestions listed in this article, I do whatever I can to make my trek outdoors a pleasant experience!

Why I use a power chair

You may ask, why am I in a power chair? Two reasons. First, I had a great deal of trouble walking before my MG diagnosis because of severe nerve damage from lumbar stenosis. Then, I became ill and received a diagnosis of MG. A couple years later I had lumbar surgery, but apparently the nerve damage was too great for complete healing of the nerve.

As a result of the spinal issue and weakness, coupled with shortness of breath from MG, I realized I was unable to walk enough to live a full life. So, I talked with my neurologist about my options. Because I had 2 serious, complicated illnesses, we decided the power chair would allow me to live a better life.

With the power chair came some necessary modifications to our yard. Though some modifications may not be realistic, others gave me the freedom, accessibility, comfort, and the contentment I desired.

Adding a ramp

One modification was the ramp my husband and son built for me. They listened to what I wanted and built what I wanted and needed. Ramps also work for those who are still mobile but have problems climbing stairs. We only have a ramp on the front of our house, but I hope someday to have one off the back of the house, too.

Even if you’re getting around great now, think about the future and plan ahead for the possibility of losing some independence. Even if only temporary, MG can rear its ugly head and cause a flare of symptoms or crisis. I’m experiencing a mild to moderate flare now and would not be able to even walk out into the yard before being left gasping for air. I strongly believe it’s always a good idea to plan for the "what ifs" and be prepared, especially with MG.

Sidewalks and driveways

Another thing I prefer to have is a sidewalk. The only sidewalk we have goes from the house straight to the street. We have a parking area and driveway on both sides of the house with no sidewalk to either of them. Most of the time, the grass buffers the ride. But the wear and tear on the grass causes it to die back and expose a little mud that is easily tracked into the house!

Though our landlord has said we can put in a walkway and he’ll pay for the supplies, my husband has been too ill to do it. Plus that isn’t our responsibility to put in a sidewalk for him. It’s the same when going through the back yard. I would really love to have a sidewalk I can actually use, at least from the vehicle to the ramp.

Accessible doors

Standard doors are usually too small to comfortably accommodate a wheelchair. Handicap accessible doors should be at least 36 inches wide. Some mobile homes or modular doors may not be wide enough for wheelchairs or power chairs. French or sliding glass doors are wider and provide a good wheelchair access.

If possible, make sure the entryway is level. Most doorways have a raised threshold. This can make it quite difficult to go through the doorway without bumping into the doorjamb. Also, it takes additional effort to maneuver a manual chair (or even a power chair) over them. A doorway that's too small or a raised threshold can cause injury and/or damage to the door frames.

Another consideration regarding doors is the door handle. When you have weakness in your hands or a lot of pain, it can be challenging trying to turn a regular doorknob. In my opinion, lever-style door handles would work much better.

Decks and patios

When planning your patio space, remember wheelchairs take up more space than the average chair. Avoid bar-type tables or you’ll be eating with your forehead. While benches are usually great for children, they won’t be practical for adults with mobility issues.

Patio or lawn chairs might suit your needs better. Be sure to have a convenient handicap access to your deck or patio from your house and to your yard. Allow adequate space in order to maneuver a wheelchair - I suggest a minimum of 5 feet in all directions. If you have a multiple-level deck, more ramps may be necessary. Be sure to include a non-slip surface while you’re at it!

If your deck is off the ground, I suggest rails, even if it's low. Our porch doesn’t have rails around it and though it’s only about 18 inches off the ground, I am so very careful about getting too close and worry about it all the time. We have considered building rails around it but not attaching it to the porch. If we remain here longer, we may do just that because nothing is attached so we can always take them with us when we leave.

Outdoor lighting

Outdoor lighting is an important consideration, not only for those with mobility issues, but also for family or guests. Ideally, there will be lighting on your steps or ramp into your home. This lighting can be solar or motion activated to minimize having to remember to turn them on and off. Make sure you plan lighting for the highly used areas.

Fences

Fences are a personal preference. However, I prefer a fenced backyard. Too many times I’ve had to deal with neighbor’s pets, and when you don’t know the animal you don’t know about their immunizations or behavior. Since we grow a vegetable garden, we use a fence to protect it from pets and wildlife in the area.

Another reason I prefer to have a fence is because there have been a few times I was out walking my cocker spaniel and a neighbors much larger dog came trotting over to us. I felt trapped trying to control my dog while trying to keep the other dog off both of us.

It really scared me because I knew nothing about the dog - that encounter brought with it a lot of stress. That doesn’t sound like much, but stress adds up and after a given amount of time, we will all react to it.

My MG did react to the stresses of having unwanted visits quite often. My hands would cramp, I’d become short of breath, and be very leary going outside to enjoy my own backyard. A fence would give me some security and sense of well-being. There would be much less stress to create havoc with my MG.

Whatever you are able to do with your outdoor space, I hope you can enjoy yourself and spend time with your loved ones safely.

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