The Wheelchair Wheelie (part 1 of 3)

For someone walking around on 2 feet, a wheelchair wheelie may seem like just a cool trick.  But, for a person confined to a wheelchair 24/7, a wheelie is much more than just a “trick”…..or at least it should be.  …. I see paraplegics in manual wheelchairs neglect to incorporate the wheelie into their practical functional living.

Some people may think that a person disabled in a wheelchair is just as disabled as all others in wheelchairs, no more no less.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  Yes, they’re both in wheelchairs, there’s no getting around that fact.  But, the levels of functional independence can be far different.  For someone confined to a wheelchair, disability and independence work as opposites.   The less functional independence, the more disabled they are.  The more independent the person, the less disabled they are, regardless of the fact that they are both in wheelchairs.

For starters, learning to pop a wheelie will remind you that, although you’re newly paralyzed, you can still drive your mother crazy….  I’m sorry to all the mothers, but I mean that in the nicest way possible.   I’ll attempt to explain: I first learned to pop a wheelie shortly (3-4 weeks) after my injury while in-patient at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, FL.  As soon as I got back to my hospital room, against her request, I showed my mother.  While already balancing on 2 wheels she said loudly with a grin on her face “Oh my goodness! Jacob you’re gonna break your neck! Stop it!”.   I continued to bobble around in a wheelie, against her request, as I would have done 2 months earlier before becoming paralyzed.  Like most mothers, my mom has always worried about me growing up.  When I was little it was “Don’t climb the tree so high, be careful, your going to hurt yourself!”.  And 2 months before I was paralyzed it was “Please stop jumping down flights of stairs on your skates, your going to crack your head open!”.  It was less of her screaming, and more of us playing.  She never truly wanted me to stop doing what I enjoyed.  She’s always been an advocate of living life to the fullest,  it’s just that she was worried about her son.  So, when I learned to pop a wheelie for the first time all I wanted to do was show my mother, because I knew how she would react.  In the moment we both realized how refreshing it was to find normalcy in such an abnormal painful situation.

Many people living in wheelchairs won’t attempt going over curbs or steps.  The fear and anxiety of “what if” further disables them, although most of them have the physical ability.  I have friends in chairs that constantly look for the small “wheelchair accessible” ramp to get down curbs.  Sure, I understand using the “accessible” ramp if a) you absolutely, physically have no other option due to disability, or b) it happens to be directly in the path of where you’re going at the time.  Other than that, a person paralyzed in a wheelchair has no excuse for the inconvenience.  I don’t know about you, but if I decide in a split second that I want to cross the street, damn it I’m popping a 90-degree wheelie down the curb directly to my right and jaywalking across the street.  Yes, I get around in a wheelchair, but there is nothing disabled about wanting to cross a street and choosing to doing so.  It’s important to note, you’re the only person who truly knows what your physical limitations are.  I respect and understand those who are physically limited and therefore unable to do specific things.  But I also feel the need to say, don’t cop out.  Whatever your true disability level, be as independent and efficient as possible.  Don’t pull the wheelchair card at the expense of your personal independence. Again, the more independent you are, the less disabled you will be, literally.  Remember, it’s not the actual wheelchair that will define your level of disability.It’s difficult for a physical therapist to teach a person in a wheelchair how to successfully execute a wheelie in different situations if the therapists’ themselves aren’t proficient in a wheelchair (or any other exercise).   The “wheelie” fundamentals and instructions I offer are solely my opinion, and not considered the only “correct” way to learn.   Regardless of if you learn from me or not, if you are a physical therapist I strongly suggest active learning, which will lead to active teaching, which will be useful for patients new to wheelchairs.  Rather than textbook learning, which leads to textbook teaching, which leads to useless non-functional textbook information.


Before I list the practical uses of a wheelie, I will list my personal uses for a wheelie.  Please note, these uses have absolutely nothing to do with functional daily living.  Furthermore, there are intended for the sole entertainment of no one other than myself.

1)  To instantly bring discomfort to the face of a senior citizen breaking the 15 Second Rule. Sometimes I get board.  I may be standing (yes, I said standing) in line at the grocery store, airport, or rolling through the mall minding my own business.   If an O.T. (“Old Timer”) breaks the 15 Second Rule, I’ll pop a wheelie to take them out of “the zone”.  This usually results in overload to the brain and they don’t know how to react, which for some reason is slightly amusing to me….   Are you familiar with the 15 Second Rule?  If not, allow me to explain. If you’re paralyzed in a wheelchair, naturally people are going to look at you.  Some feel pity, some are simply curious.  A look is one thing, locking on like a heat-seeking missile is another.  Any 1 random person can break the 15 Second Rule on any given day, but it’s mainly the O.T.’s that look at me like a Martian.  So don’t get it twisted thinking I go out of my way to bring discomfort to senior old timers.  Throughout life I’ve learned there are rules… One of those rules happens to involve a 15 second window of opportunity.

2)  To amaze children under 8 (+ or – 2).  Little kids have an innocence about them, which can’t be replicated once lost.  They’re the only people (yes, children are people) allowed to stare at me for an extended amount of time.  If a 4 year old is deep in trance staring at me, they get a wheelie because it usually catches them off guard, making them smile.   They aren’t staring at me passing judgment, they couldn’t fathom such a word, they are simply curious.  For this reason, the “15 Second Rule” does not apply to children under 5, although they still get a wheelie in exchange for a giggle.

3)  As the years go by I often miss the sound…  And so I’m sporadically compelled to do the “wheelie dance” in my mother’s kitchen.  My mom yelling: “Jacob, stop it!…… I’m not going to help when you crack your friggin’ head open!”…. Nothing like bonding time with mom 🙂

More importantly, there are some practical ways to functionally use a wheelie in your everyday life, which will ultimately decrease your “disability”.  They are listed below from subtle (easiest) to extreme (hardest):

1)  Finding your center of balance:  This is a very important aspect of being in a wheelchair 24/7, although it is overlooked often because it’s such a subtle position.   While leaning back to perform a wheelie, this is the exact point where your front wheels have absolutely no weight going through them into the ground, although they are still barely touching the ground.  Learning about your center of balance will help you more than you can imagine.  This is the only example that can be practiced without removing anti-tip bars.  The rest require complete removal.  As you become more comfortable with your center of balance, you’ll begin to keep your front wheels weightless throughout daily activity, lifting them as necessary, not popping a wheelie. (see below)
Finding the center of balance from in a wheelchair.
2)  Resting:  If you’re in a wheelchair 24/7, then you know how sitting all day can make the body ache.  If you’re comfortable popping a wheelie, you can easily lean back against a wall, car, tree, or whatever.  The further you lean back the higher your front wheels will rise.  This requires much less balance, due to the fact that you’re leaning against something stationary.  Still, to do this on the fly you’ll need to be comfortable with your wheelies.  Practice wheelies, and then practice relaxation. (see below)
3)  Turning in tight spaces:  You’ll often find yourself in tight confined spaces, only to then realize you are officially stuck like a turtle on his back.  Whether it’s the dimensions of the restaurant you’re eating in, or an abundance of people’s feet and shins, feeling like you can’t move around in any situation is no fun.  Sometimes you’ll want to turn a 180 degrees, attempting to get away from a highly crowded situation.  But, you have people standing all around on both sides of your chair… “Shit dude, I’m stuck…” Don’t sit there helpless!  Feeling helpless, for anyone, is the worst feeling in the world.  Turn to your right and tap fat Al on his sweaty shoulder: “Hey bub, could you move just a bit please”.  Then, turn to your left and tap the nice young lady on her side: “Excuse me miss”.  Finally, swiftly pop a mini wheelie to turn around as agile and nimble as possible, making sure you don’t run anyone’s feet over with the remaining wheels on the ground.  If you don’t use a wheelie, and therefore never use one to navigate densely populated areas, then this point may seem trivial and possibly unimportant.  But the truth is, it’s amazing how much more agility and mobility you’ll have just by having the wheelie mastered for everyday life situations.
4)  Rolling downhill:  Even in Florida, I find myself in situations where the ground angle changes.  Depending on which direction your rolling, it’s either an incline or a decline.  If you run (no pun intended) into an incline, well, all I can tell you is man up and put some elbow grease into it.  On the other hand, if you find yourself approaching a decline, I have some advise to help navigate with minimal stress.  Anyone paralyzed in a wheelchair knows that we keep balance solely with our core.  Meaning, our legs and feet, although they look pretty, are doing absolutely nothing to help balance our upper body in unlevel sketchy situations.   Therefore, when rolling down a decline in a wheelchair (ie: a road, sidewalk, airplane terminal, subway terminal,  mountain side, whatever) it’s imperative to have the ability to pop a wheelie and lean back.   If not, due to the decline, you’ll feel as though your upper body may fall forward out of the wheelchair.  You’ll harbor this unsure feeling until the decline evens out and becomes flat again.  But in the future, this anxious unsure feeling will return every time you approach, or even see a decline.  It is this exact feeling of anxiety and fear that will further disable you.  So, what can you do?! Easy. First, perfect your wheelie.  Then, when you have to roll down a steep decline you won’t have to feel the anxiety and fear because you’ll know how to handle it.  I usually pop my wheelie before the front wheels even begin the decline.  This way my core never tips forward through the entire decline.  Once you begin the decent in a wheelie you’ll hold an angle that’s comfortable, depending on the grade of the decline.   There isn’t really a right or wrong angle to hold through the decline, so it’s key to do what feels right for you.  The most important thing is that your core, although rolling down a decline, is still tipped backwards.  The end result is no more “what if” worries about rolling down steep declines.  Please keep in mind, rolling 30 feet while holding a wheelie on flat ground is much different than rolling 30 feet while holding a wheelie down a decline.  On flat ground, you push the wheel, allow the hand rail to slide through your fingers freely until they slow down, eventually stopping.  You then have to make another push and repeat the process.  But, on a decline (especially steep declines), you will have a different process.  You won’t need to push the handrails at all.  The wheel will want to spin more than you can allow it, therefore it’s very important to always keep a firm grip.  The more you loosen your grip on the handrail, the faster you’ll cruise down the decline in the wheelie.  So, the more comfortable you become, the more you loosen your grip, resulting in comfortable, non-sketchy mach speeds down declines.  (see below)
5)  Bumping up or down curbs/steps:  I say “curbs/steps” as a general reference.  What I mean is, bumping up or down anything that has a drastic elevation change over an extremely short distance.  In everyday life, yes, this will usually be a curb or step, but it could easily be a pothole, tree root, subway entrance ledge…………….  Whatever it may be, it’s important you make a point to go through it rather than adjust your daily living by going around it or worse not going at all, further disabling yourself.   Assuming you’re comfortable popping a wheelie, bumping down a curb/step shouldn’t be physically hard.  Although, the first time may be a bit tough psychologically.   Also, keep in mind that holding a wheelie down a curb is much easier and less technical than popping back up the same curb.  I will post a detailed outline and video shortly, addressing “How To” bump up and down curbs in a wheelchair.  If this is something that interests you, please subscribe to the RRS feed.
6)  Bumping up or down stairs/steps: Eventually, you will come to a crossroad in life where you need to get down a couple stairs or steps.  This will not be physically difficult, assuming you are comfortable bumping up and down a single curb/step.  Although, this will definitely  be more intimidating than just 1 curb/step.  The difference is there’s no turning back once you commit to bumping down multiple consecutive stairs.  In daily life you’ll rarely encounter steps that must be bumped, but it’s nice to have the option should you choose to use the skill.
7)  Most importantly, the miniscule everyday things:  When I say miniscule, I’m talking about things that are too small for most people to notice.  The realistic “stuff” that may make the ground sporadically deviate plus or minus an inch throughout your daily living.   Like little cracks in sidewalks, or the small lip on commercial doorway entrances.   Maybe a power cord or G.I. Joe lying on the ground.

Read Part 2.

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Showing 4 comments
  • annette

    Jacob, i really enjoyed your blog and NOW have to go thru and read more you hooked me.I have been in the chair for 31 yrrs., (WOW ! sometimes, often, it seems just yesterday) At 56, im realizing age related PAINS due to so many yrs. sitting and NOT really doing any exercising (much massage therypy, tho). With not much help from the Dr.s, regarding some pains (saying nothings wrong, nope, we dont see anything) I realize, once AGAIN its time to take matters in my own hands and have found serious relief instead of the prescribed pain pills ALL day long, EVERYDAY. Am glad too, to see your positive attitude, the few people ive come accross in a chair seem to be bitter and angry. Tho i get it, i too felt that way for a time during my 6 mo.s of rehah in 1980. But soon realized it doesnt work for me. Its no fun, I had no fun and certainly people around you arent having fun, and lets face it, if friends arent having fun with you they will disappear and leave you alone.Maybe another time i can share what gave me a serious wake up call there.. Meanwhile my husband has set me up a blog that i can share.VERY new at it, but want to help others with aspects you can only learn after exp. TTODLES annette

    • Jacob


      I can relate to much of what you said:) Sometimes it does seem like just yesterday. I’m curious as to what gave you a wake-up call. has a YOUR STORY section, where people express their story/struggle, signing with either their name or a pen name. If you’re at all interested, please email your story to You can write/express HOWEVER you want, no censorship whatsoever! Therefore, if you need to say *%@! or *%$#@B-*$@!%# to express an emotion you may have been feeling at the time, by all means let it out;).

      Thanks for reading!


      • annette

        Well, while in rehab, my boyfriend at time, who was driving the car left me. I was so depressed, to put it MILDLY, as you no doubt understand. Ijust wanted to DIE!!!! I asked my bestfriend to get me some drugs so i could go to SLEEP quitely. She went to my nurse (who had by now taken me home with her for visiting, bar-b-que, fast friends), who went to my Dr.,who got me a shrink. Of course, any one who has spent any amount of time in hospital, knows its rumor central. I was 24, and incomplete para. One day a young man, about the same age, from car accident became quad. Damage so high, he had to blow out of a straw to make his electric wheelchair move, and mostly always breathless. He called me over one day,told me he had heard, i wanted to commit sucide. Then commenced to SLAP me back to reality with words. That he could not pop pills to turn out the lights, that he also could not pull a trigger, nor push himself over a cliff. This young man could do nothing but barely breath, but he made abundantly clear to me i was on pitty pot and could still lead a full life esp. in comparison to his life. That was 32 yrs ago, and i might get down at times at a dance( because i was a dancing FOOL), but im not a bummer. I love life! The common statement from my friends thru the yrs.,…” Oh, i forgot your in a chair”!.Tho, today they may not be saying that to often, as im 56 and feeling it! lol Thanks for your sharing ,i think its fabulous you will get personal about yourself. Thats my goal, to help others new to the chair. So much i had to learn on my own, by trial and error, that they dont teach in hospital. Sincerly, Annette

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