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How Wheelchairs Have Evolved Over The Years

Mar 11, 2008
Since the invention of the first folding wheelchair in 1932 by Harry Jenning, wheelchairs are still to this day used as the main device of mobility for people with disabilities. Over the years, the wheelchair has been optimised in terms of manoeuvrability, weight, size, seating adjustability and switching from manual to electric.

Wheelchairs have been in use for many centuries prior to the invention of the folding wheelchair. It is not quite known when and where exactly the first wheelchair was invented, however evidence of them being used in much of Europe and Asia, during the earlier centuries BC, have revealed that they were perhaps more common amongst the richer and established societies. These were more common in the 16th and 17th century when they became more of a mobility device for people with disabilities.

It was not until the 1940's that wheelchairs became more than just a tool for people with disabilities to manoeuvre, as it then came to light that this would not restrict them from taking part in internationally renowned sports. In 1948, Sir Ludwig Guttwig, a neurologist who treated WWII veterans, came up with a new type of treatment for people with disabilities. As part of his rehabilitation programme, he would use sports to help his patients, which later came to be known as the Stoke Mandeville Games.

The movement became internationally recognised in 1952 when competitors from the Netherlands decided to take part in the competition - and thus followed in 1960 the first Olympic competition in Rome. Guttman had brought in 400 athletes using wheelchairs to compete in the games. The Paralympics was then born, with first one held in Ornskoldsvik, Sweden in 1976.

The word Paralympics has often been mistaken to be derived from the 'paraplegic' or 'paralysis', when in fact this word is derived from the Greek 'para', which literally means alongside or beside. Thus referring to a competition that is alongside, beside or parallel to the Olympic Games.

The first games however, were not always smoothly run and did have issues with adjustment for people in wheelchairs. The athletes' village were not built to be wheelchair-friendly, and the athletes had to be carried up and down the stairs. Not only that, the basketball and athletics games were held some distances away from the village, which meant that transportation had to be arranged for the competitors.

Despite the initial teething, problems the first games saw a crowd of 5000 people, of which the largest delegations came from Italy.

The sports movement spread worldwide, reaching those not only suffering from spinal injuries but all sorts of disabilities making it possible for all to take part, train and compete. Since the early days of the birth of the Paralympics games the number of participants has increased from 400 athletes to 3806 athletes, all attending from 136 countries recorded from the last competition in Athens 2004.

The Paralympics is now an elite sporting event, which is open to people of six different disability groups to compete.
About the Author
Anna Stenning is an expert on the history of wheelchairs and is a fan of watching the Paralympics. For more on mobility devices visit http://www.euromedical.co.uk/
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