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Heart to Heart

Heart to Heart

PERSONAL STORIES THAT INFORM, INSPIRE AND EMPOWER

At 16 years old, Alex Johnson is already working to make the world more accessible.

The key, he says, is opening people’s eyes to what it’s really like to use a wheelchair, from navigating heavy doors and steep ramps to reaching the top shelf in the grocery store. “I got the idea for Spend a Day in My Wheels when I was in fifth grade,” Alex recalls. “I just really wanted people to understand the struggle and what it’s like to live life in a wheelchair, and I wanted to help make it better.”

With the help of his dad, Nathan, and the Permobil Foundation, Alex created Spend a Day in My Wheels. Armed with 15 manual wheelchairs, Alex challenges legislators, classmates, businesses—anyone who’s up for the challenge—to spend a day navigating life in a wheelchair. “We give them a set list of tasks we want them to complete,” Alex says.

“We definitely want them to visit the bathroom and try accessible parking. If it’s an office, we want them to go to the break room and get coffee. At schools, we challenge them to go through the lunch line or visit the vending machines. The goal is for them to figure out how to do very simple tasks that are more difficult from a wheelchair.”

Since beginning Spend a Day in My Wheels in 2018, the Johnsons have conducted 18 programs throughout the Middle Tennessee area, from students at Alex’s school to members of the Nashville Predators staff. Over the years, Alex has noticed a few common themes emerge in the issues participants’ face.


“The restroom is always a big issue, getting in the stall or getting to the toilet,” Alex says. “At offices and schools, heavy doors can cause problems because they’re hard to open and close quickly. Throw rugs can get wrapped up in a wheel or create a huge hump you can’t get over.”


While many of Alex’s Spend a Day in My Wheels challenges take place in buildings that meet Americans with Disability Act (ADA) requirements, the exercise often helps participants recognize difficulties wheelchair users face even in ADA-compliant spaces. “If a ramp is too steep, people might have to lock the brakes on the wheelchair and rest or have someone help them get up it,” Alex says. “Sometimes even things that are designed with wheelchair users in mind are not well executed.”

By helping people experience firsthand the challenges wheelchair users face on a daily basis, Alex and Nathan hope Spend a Day in My Wheels helps to create change. “My goal is to advocate, to help people reach a better understanding of accessibility needs and make a change,” Alex says. “Ramp access, bathroom stalls that are truly accessible, and insurance policies around getting a new chair—I want to educate people and help them really understand what needs to be corrected.”

Members of the Tennessee House of Representatives participating in Spend a Day In My Wheels. Photo by Nathan Johnson

Alex and the Permobil Foundation have found that once someone spends a day in a wheelchair, they better understand the challenges of living in a world made for walking. If you know of a business or school that would like to participate in the Spend a Day in My Wheels Challenge, visit permobilfoundation.org/spend-a-day-in-my-wheels for more information.

 

Participants of the very first “Spend a Day In My Wheels” wheelchair challenge. Friendship Christian School. Photo by Aaron Sain

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