Sunday, January 08, 2006

Fix It Yourself



A reckless desire overtook me recently - to take my manual wheelchair apart. This is usually the job of the wheelchair service, but I sense a general lack of enthusiasm from them to keep it well maintained. If something major goes wrong I might get a new part, but for general maintenance, as long as it rolls forward a bit then no other investigations are attempted. I've had it for 6 years now and it's looking a little battered, and it seems to be more and more difficult to use. So far I've blamed this solely on my degenerative wrist joints rather than poor general maintenance. The maintenance guy, lets call him Gavin (a huge, scary, bow-tie wearing 'comedian' of a chap who when he's not working takes crip kids to Lourdes for 'cures' - in a bus I suspect, has rainbows painted on it), does come out once in a while and tighten a nut or two, but each time he's told me nothing major was wrong. He always tells me on pain of death not to attempt any maintenance myself. If you don't look convinced enough, he will tell you tales of poor crips who have broken this vow and the 'orrible penalties they suffered. Our sort aren't meant for initiative, and god forbid we'd be right in saying the equipment we use every day isn't performing the way it used to. And by the way, have I ever been to Lourdes? Consequently, I've been blaming my poor old wrists for all the trouble I've had and desperately seeking some other way to get the chair looked at.

Suddenly, last week, desperation took hold and I went to bed early with the instruction manual in a determined mood to 'fix' the dratted thing once and for all the next day. I figured that reading something technical late at night might mean the complicated bits stuck in my mind the for next day. I reasoned that this was the way I used to revise German vocabulary at school – and some of it used to sink in. I'm not a technical person really. If left to my usual creative methods, I might arrange nuts and bolts to look aesthetically pleasing, but not actually enable the chair to work. Anyway. I got down to some serious study figuring a little technical insight might remedy any gaps in my un-technical outlook.

The castor assembly seemed an easy first thing to experiment with. They've not been performing well, despite the wheelchair service guy declaring the rubber wasn't worn enough for new ones to be ordered. If you spun them round when the chair was off the ground, they only went round half a turn, which I was sure was wrong - when I got the chair they moved easily and took at least two full rotations before they stopped.

Early next morning, after peering at the castors, it became apparent that old matted-up hair was playing a part. Hair appeared to be wrapped tightly round the castors, an offence for which I can no longer blame my dearly departed German Shepherd dog, Jacob. It’s all mine. Confident of getting it right, I set to work getting them off the, um, spindle, and was greeted by a horrific sight.

As I said, I've had the chair 6 years. In that time, my hair has been, in chronological order, bright red, blonde, a chocolaty brown with ill-judged white blonde slices, and finally, auburn. As I began to strip hair off the spindle, it became more and more apparent that hair build-up had been impeding the castors movement, layer by layer, year by year, since the day of delivery. By the time I reached the red hair layer (circa 1999), the air was blue with my cursing. How can you run a repair service and not know this kind of thing happens?! Or not care to look when some poor crip’s hands are getting sore from heaving hair-raddled castors around town? After a bit of oiling for good measure, I put the whole thing back together and hey presto! Spin city! Result.

This made me more foolishly confident. I took a quick peek at the back wheel axle assembly. In it's introduction, the manual said the chair would run more easily if the user's weight was placed over the back wheels but this had to be judged carefully as it would make the chair more liable to tip backwards. ‘So what’, I thought. ‘The position on this chair was first set by people who don't even know how to service castors! Bugger it all, I'm gonna set 'em to a speedier position. It doesn't look too difficult. Some of the instructions that aren't in Swedish are in English...’

There are several different settings on my chair, a swedish made Etac Elite. I got to work carefully, noting a little too late the pictures featuring the order of the axle nuts went in were rather blotchy-looking so it was difficult to see what went where. "So what," I thought again, making my first big mistake – if it was complicated, they'd make the instructions bigger and clearer - wouldn't they?

I am my own worst enemy at these times.

Taking it apart was easy. Mark this. It is the signal that things are going too well. All the little nuts slid off the bar smoothly, into a little unordered heap on the floor. Somewhere far, far, away, a warning bell tolled, but I was too busy working out which setting would give me the leanest, meanest, fastest speed to pay it any heed. Undoing the other side, I identified the correct setting to turn me into the next Tanni Grey-Thompson, and eager to hasten new victories, picked up the first of the nuts to fix them back onto the bar. It was at this point I realised they all had quite a distinctive shape.

Forty-five sweaty minutes later, I found a picture in the manual that clearly showed the order all the shapes had to go back on the bar. I'm not holding grudges here, but they weren't in the English version... I had to read the French, German and Swedish instructions to find the blotchy, photocopy-quality diagrams were a little clearer across the different language versions. I put everything back together with a sigh of relief that was only cut short when it became obvious something was horribly wrong with the camber of the rear wheels. The camber is what makes the back wheels stick out at an angle at the bottom, rather than go down purely vertical to the ground. It improves handling, and you see it to extreme on the big slanted wheels of sports wheelchairs. My wheels had camber, but instead of the distance between them being wider at the bottom, it was wider at the top! My chair took on a kind of 'bunged-up' look, as though it was holding itself in. Eeek! How did that happen? I knew I'd put everything back in the right order, and another forty-five minutes of sweating and looking at the Swedish instructions seemed to suggest the camber nuts had to be positioned in a certain position to give wider camber at the bottom. Taking it all apart again I re-did it, and all of sudden it began to look alright, spurring me on, when really I should have stopped and thanked my lucky stars I didn't have to wheel round in a constipated-looking wheelchair, too ashamed to call the wheelchair service and admit my crime.

By this time it was around 2.30pm. That gave me 1 1/2 hours before Mr Fang came home for our planned supermarket trip.

You’d think I’d give up gracefully at this point, but my overblown sense of triumph in righting the wheel camber meant I was hungry to fiddle some more. Picking up the manual once again, I found a relatively easy job in removing some of the stops that held the rims (the section manual wheelchair users hold to push the wheels) away from the wheels. I had no idea if having the rims closer to the wheels meant I could self-propel any easier, but ‘a change is as good as a rest’, I said to myself, and before you could say ‘Sunshine-Bus-To-Hell’, I had the rims off on the floor. Shortly afterwards there was more cursing, because all the neatly stacked little piles of stops I’d removed and set on the coffee table got knocked off somehow and rolled under the sofa. Hard floors make things roll further, y’know. Sprawling on my stomach, I struggled to collect them, and whaddya know, I managed to find all of them bar one.

3.30pm. The ‘little job’ I’d mentioned to Mr F that morning had taken me most of the day. My clothes were covered in dust from crawling around on the floor. My blood pressure was most certainly up, and I had need of a shower. I maintained a faint hope my day’s activities had upped my metabolism somewhat, so’s I could justify some kind of biscuit reward, for in the heady rush of ‘fixing’ I had forgotten to eat anything all day. Where was that last hand-rim stop? Think, Fang, think – it’ll be in the last place you expect it to be. I shifted my weight slightly, whereupon I realised I was sitting on it. Hurrah!

Half an hour later, I was back to my usual unruffled self, ready for the supermarket trip. Mr F remarked upon my work, noting the chair rolled along much more smoothly. He pushes me in the chair out-doors, whilst I take over once we are inside on smooth floors. We negotiated a kerb at record speed.

‘It was a mere trifle’, I lied. ‘Easy if you know how to read a service manual.’.

The devil must have been listening to my gloat, for the next moment the whole world turned upside down, and suddenly all I could see in front of me were my feet and the sky, shortly thereafter filled with the concerned face of Mr Fang. ‘Ermm… you certainly made a difference to the weight distribution’, he said.

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