Designer Wheels

It’s not just a wheelchair anymore

by Kathy Wechsler on November 1, 2004 - 11:54am

Why do we decorate our wheelchairs and scooters? Probably for the same reason the kid sitting next to us in Spanish class has green hair.

Expressing our individuality is important for all of us, but it seems to offer something extra to those of us who have disabilities. Self-expression shows that we’re human. We want others to know that we’re people first and foremost, and that the disability is secondary.

Standing out as an individual


“Expressing yourself as an individual is a regular part of development and a regular part of life,” said Allen A. Winebarger, a licensed clinical psychologist at Parmelee & Winebarger Psychological Consulting in Grand Haven, Mich. “If you don’t do it, you can feel as if life sort of happens to you instead of life being something that you do.”

People with disabilities often have fewer opportunities than others for self-expression. Your choices as to what vehicle (if any) you drive, where you live and even when you go to bed may be limited by your disability.

Dressing up your wheelchair is empowering, said Winebarger, a clinical psychologist who has counseled people with disabilities for 10 years. It’s a way to assert yourself and take control of some important parts of your life.

“When we put part of ourselves into the building that we live in or the scooter that we drive or the place we work, it makes it ours and we have ownership of it,” said Winebarger, who stresses that losing your personal power can result in hopelessness, depression and anxiety.

Breaking the ice

If your wheelchair or scooter is beyond the norm, you’re inviting the world to talk back to you, said Winebarger. The same goes for the kid with green hair.

Some people are wary of talking to you if you have a disability, either because they’re afraid they might say the “wrong” thing or because they’re not sure you can or want to talk to them. Personalizing your wheelchair or scooter puts others at ease, giving them the opportunity to comment on your handiwork or your interests.

“Or if you feel like the world is misjudging you, express yourself so the world knows who you are,” Winebarger said.

Hot wheels

Lisa Miljevic
Co-founder of Spokeguard Art Lisa Miljevic shows off two of her favorite designer spoke guards.

Your chair is your canvas. Be creative. Maybe you want to string holiday lights around your chair, drape a Grateful Dead banner over your backrest, or glue a picture of your favorite pet to the basket of your scooter.

If you’d rather not do the decorating yourself, several companies offer unique products to make your means of mobility the talk of the town. You can take a functional approach and get a set of designer spoke guards to protect your fingers from getting caught in the spokes of your manual wheelchair.

Or, there’s always a hilarious, sweet or racy bumper sticker for your chair or scooter. Maybe you’re tired of blending in and want a new paint job or some fashionable upholstery. Or maybe you’d just like a new look every few months or weeks.

The sky’s the limit when it comes to bringing out the best in your chair.

Designer mobility equipment is for men, women and children. There’s no age limit to being creative and no rules other than the obvious one of not taking your “I Love Satan” bumper sticker to church.

Functional art

Lisa Miljevic of Spokeguard Art, a Deltona, Fla., business, describes her one-of-a-kind plastic creations as “functional art,” because they not only look good; they also protect fingers.

Charles Whitehead of Rollin’Man offers a variety of spoke guards, which are shown throughout this article.

Miljevic, 32, a wheelchair user because of a spinal cord injury in 1993, co-founded Spokeguard Art three years ago. Her company offers design choices or customizes spoke guards to your specific style. For $89.95, you can get a set of guards featuring a Caribbean beach, a bald eagle or a campfire. Not wanting manual wheelchair users to have all the fun, Miljevic is seeking a way to put designer spoke guards on power chairs.

Customized spoke guards cost extra, depending on the amount of work put into their creation. Whether you want a picture of your service dog on your wheels or a sports team or company logo, Miljevic can help you say “This is who I am!” Miljevic has a variety of aesthetic spoke guards that she changes to match her clothes, her surroundings and her mood.

One of her guards sports an American flag and the words “United We Roll.”

Rollin’Man of Montclair, Calif., also offers a wide variety of spoke guards, including ones that sport the American flag, a large happy face and a pair of playful dolphins. Prices range from $45 to $50 a pair, and custom designs cost extra.

Jessica Frischknecht
Jessica Frischknecht
Jessica Frischknecht, who has SMA, models two accessories sold by WHEELSTYLE. Below, keep up with the times with this designer clock. Photos by Kimberly Rhodes

Rollin’Man also sells personalized license plates reading “Rollin’ Nation,” “Rollin’ Mom” and similar tags. Company Founder Charles Whitehead 41, a wheelchair user from a spinal cord injury, says he changes his own guards every few months to shake things up.

Make it talk

Jessica Frischknecht of Provo, Utah, recently started WHEELSTYLE, a small business that sells artwork created by people with disabilities, shirts, bumper stickers, license plates, mouse pads and more ($2.99 to $100). She plans on expanding her selection to include a wider variety of bumper stickers and seat covers for wheelchairs that come in leopard and zebra prints.

Affected by spinal muscular atrophy, Frischknecht, 21, has jazzed up her power wheelchair with a homemade leopard print seat cover and a bumper sticker reading, “Does this wheelchair make my butt look big?”

Dress it up

Designs by Delour’des offers a selection of fashion upholstery for your wheelchair. Delour’des Guiterrez designs and fabricates custom backrest upholstery ($120 to $230), slip covers for backrests ($65), cushion covers ($55 to $70) and calf straps ($15).

Guiterrez’s favorite product is the wedding backrest for a bride in a wheelchair. It can be as simple or as complicated as the bride wants, and price depends on the amount of work involved. She also makes a backrest for the groom, designed to look like the back of his tuxedo.

How does she come up with all these great ideas?

“I put myself in [his or her] position,” said Guiterrez, who doesn’t have a disability. “If I’m a girl in a wheelchair, and I’m going to get married, I want to match my backrest with my dress to make it look better — no black.”

Add some color

Want a custom paint job? Some wheelchair manufacturers offer a selection of designer paints such as stars and stripes and camouflage. To have the chair painted as it’s being built usually costs around $210.

Painting your current chair is a more involved process because the chair needs to be taken apart before painting and put back together after. Your rehab supplier will work with a paint or powder-coating shop to give your wheelchair or scooter a unique look. Be prepared to spend $500 to $1,000.

If you’re weighing whether or not to get an unusual paint job, Michelle Lorenzini of Tucson, Ariz., advises: “Do it. Be outrageous.”

For four years Lorenzini, who has Friedreich’s ataxia, had used a Quickie manual wheelchair with a leopard print paint job. “I wanted to stand out and get noticed,” said Lorenzini, 24. “People always commented on my chair; they loved it. I also loved the attention.”

Delou'des Design Wedding Chair
(Above) Designs by Delour’des offers a custom wedding backrest with full train so that the bride’s wheelchair is as beautiful as the bride. (Below) Custom backrest upholstery, such as this one also from Designs by Delour’des, lets you display your hobbies and interests.
Custom backrest upholstery

When it was time to buy another Quickie, she opted for something different, but still suited to her personality. Lorenzini ordered her new chair painted black with silver glitter.

Not just for wheelchairs

No matter what kind of mobility device you have, it can be decorated. You can paint your cane, tie ribbons around your oxygen tank, display your grandkids’ artwork on your walker or see what designer mobility equipment is out there.

Your options are endless. Even your oxygen tank can be jazzed up with a decorative cover for $22. You can take a walk on the wild side with a beautifully designed cane from several companies at prices ranging from $29 to $300. Or, get cane covers to match every outfit for $10 to $12 each.

Nona Leatherwood Maxwell of Yukon, Okla., knows the importance of feeling good about the cane she uses. It was this desire and her Native American heritage that led her to establish Nona’s Canes and create hand-carved hardwood walking canes decorated with intricate Cheyenne beadwork, Cherokee-style weavings, buckskin, turquoise inlay and artificial feathers. Her prices range from $150 to $450.

“When people see me with my cane, they don’t ask any more: What are you doing using a cane? Or what happened to you? It seems that they no longer see my disability,” said Maxwell, who has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease.

“It makes them feel comfortable to come up and visit about my cane.”

Designer Canes by Lorry
(954) 344-5239

Designs by Delour’des
Custom wheelchair upholstery
(714) 930-6092

Fashionable Canes and Walking Sticks
(800) 887-5185

KernsAble Enterprises
Style Stick (cane)
(888) 707-8425

Nona’s Canes
(405) 373-2589

Designer spoke guards

Spokeguard Art

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