A Personal Story by Carol Fenstermaker Slater
Recently, my son Seth got his very first wheelchair, the TiLite Twist, and I couldn’t help but share a heartwarming video of him using it with my family. Little did I know that this would spark a flood of memories and a charming piece of history shared by my Grandmother, Carol Fenstermaker Slater. In this personal tale I explore the history of the pediatric wheelchair and uncover a remarkable connection within my family.
You see, we have a remarkable family connection to the history of the pediatric wheelchairs. It all starts with my Great-Aunt Cathy, who was a paraplegic and relied on a wheelchair her entire life. Born in the July of 1945, the underlying cause of her paralysis was a mystery, though our family suspects it may have been due to a birth injury affecting her spine.
Back in those days, resources and equipment for a paraplegic toddler were scarce. But as luck would have it, my Great-Aunt had some incredibly resourceful and determined parents. When she was just beginning to crawl, in late 1945, her father ingeniously constructed a small board with wheels. This nifty contraption allowed her to lay on her stomach and use her arms to pull herself around, a simple yet effective way for her to interact with her surroundings and play with her siblings. It was about 4 inches off the ground, 12 inches wide, and 24 inches long—a clever solution for a curious child!
As my Great-Aunt entered the toddler stage, in the late 1940’s, her father decided it was time to explore the idea of getting her a proper wheelchair. He reached out to a company called Everest & Jennings, which, according to Wikipedia, was the pioneer in mass-producing wheelchairs. However, their response was disheartening. They claimed that children couldn’t handle wheelchairs, and thus, none were made specifically for pediatric use.
But my Great-Grandfather and Great-Great Grandfather were not easily deterred by this dead end. They took matters into their own hands, procured some copper, and built the very first pediatric wheelchair for my Great-Aunt Cathy! Needless to say, she adored it and proved beyond a doubt that she could “handle” it. With her newfound mobility, she zoomed around the house with sheer delight, happier than ever.
Not willing to let this accomplishment go unnoticed, they sent a video of my Great-Aunt in her wheelchair to Everest & Jennings, effectively proving that a toddler could indeed “handle” such equipment. Inspired by this revelation, the company started manufacturing the pediatric “Tiny Tot Wheelchair” from that point on. This pivotal moment in the history of the pediatric wheelchair showcases the impact of our family’s ingenuity and perseverance.
Car Bucket Seat
While the new wheelchair brought my Great-Aunt immense joy, it also posed a challenge when it came to transporting her in and out of cars. You see, back then, cars only had bench seats, making it quite cumbersome for my family. But once again, my resourceful Great-Grandfather and Great-Great Grandfather put on their thinking caps. They purchased a Buick, then took the bold step of cutting the front seat into two parts creating room for a wheelchair. To ensure the wheelchair stayed securely in place, they added a knob on the floor to attach the wheelchair to. And voila! They had created two groundbreaking innovations—the first-ever car bucket seat and the first-ever method for transporting a wheelchair in a car!
News of their inventive solution reached Buick, and the company was so impressed that they offered my family a free car as a token of appreciation for their invention. It was a proud moment indeed.
As my Great-Aunt grew older and taller, the roof of the Buick started to pose a problem. It didn’t provide enough headspace for her so the family made the decision to purchase a New York City Taxi. They once again put their skills to use, splitting the front seat, adding the security knob and creating space for my Great-Aunt’s wheelchair. The taxi had more room for my Great Aunt, but they didn’t stop there. They customized the vehicle by widening the passenger door by 14 inches, raising the ceiling by 3 inches, and lowering the floor on the passenger side by 3 inches. All these adjustments were made to ensure her absolute comfort on every single ride.
As my Grandma, Carol Slater, recounted this remarkable story, it dawned on me that the spirit of creativity and determination to improve our children’s lives runs deep in our family. Although pediatric mobility equipment has come a long way since those early days, I owe a great debt of gratitude to my Great-Grandfather and Great-Great Grandfather for their pioneering efforts. However, there is still much room for improvement so that our little ones and future generations can live their lives to the fullest.
History in the Making
I am inspired by this rich family history and determined to keep exploring and researching innovative hacks and DIY solutions to enhance the lives of my own children. The story of my family is a precious gift, one that I’m grateful to pass down to my kids as they grow older. Who knows? Perhaps someday they will contribute their own chapters to the ongoing history of the pediatric wheelchair.
The point of parenting is not to have all the answers before we start out but instead to figure it out on the go as our children grow. Because as they do, so will we.Bridgett Miller