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Wheelchairs have been providing individuals with illness, injury or disease to gain access to the world around them for hundreds of years. Offering options for support, mobility, and freedom to wheelchair users, this technology is one that is certainly worth celebrating. And that’s what International Wheelchair Day is all about! 

History of International Wheelchair Day

The history of this day can be traced back many centuries, watching the ways that technology has advanced in a way that has helped to create better opportunities for millions of people all over the world. Gleaning information from ancient stone inscriptions in Greece and China, historians believe that wheelchair-type devices have been in use since at least the sixth century AD.

For probably more than one thousand years, these wheeled chair devices required the assistance of another person to push. It wasn’t until the mid 17th century that a young German inventor created a chair he could propel himself, in the style of a handbike. Eventually, the self-propelled wheelchair became commonplace, offering even greater independence.

Less than a century ago, in the 1950s, the power wheelchair became an option for those who needed it, specifically veterans who had served and experienced a disability during WWII. Since that time, many people with “disabilities” have become incredible users of wheelchairs, whether playing basketball, winning races or even doing a backflip!

But it was even more recently that this day was founded to show appreciation for and celebrate this technology and the people who use it. International Wheelchair Day got its start in 2008 when British blogger Steve Wilkinson, also known as “Wheelchair Steve”, thought it would be a good idea to have a day dedicated to showing appreciation for and celebrating wheelchair users.

Since it was founded, International Wheelchair Day has grown and spread as an annual day of events and activities not only throughout the UK where it was founded, but also in other countries such as Australia, South Africa, Pakistan, Nepal, the United States and other places.

International Wheelchair Day Timeline

16th century 

Philip II requests a wheeled chair 

Due to gout, this king of Spain was pushed around by a servant in this “invalid chair”.[1]

1655

Self-propelled wheelchair is invented 

German watchmaker and 22-year-old paraplegic, Stephen Farffler, invents a chair that functions like a modern handbike.[2]

1916

World’s first motorized wheelchair invented

A London inventor creates the first electric wheelchair but it isn’t produced.

1956

Power wheelchairs become publicly available 

Designed by Canadian inventor, George Klein, the electric wheelchair becomes mass produced.[3]

2008

Inaugural International Wheelchair Day

Steve Wilkinson (aka “Wheelchair Steve”) establishes the first celebration of the day.[4]

How to Celebrate International Wheelchair Day

International Wheelchair Day is a time for wheelchair users to celebrate the positive impact that these important tools offer to their lives. Get involved with the day by connecting with some of these ideas:

Get Groups Involved with Wheelchair Day

When celebrating International Wheelchair Day, the more people who get involved, the better! Schools, corporations, community groups and various other people can connect with this day by hosting events and activities that encourage participation and show special appreciation for those who use wheelchairs.

Those who are interested in celebrating and hosting events for this day might check out the day’s website to get access to resources and tools, such as a promotional logo that can be used on various banners, t-shirts, posters and more. Show some support and get involved by promoting the day in person, through a business or even using social media. 

Make a Donation to a Wheelchair Charity

International Wheelchair Day acts as a reminder of how important wheelchairs are to millions of individuals around the world. Whether needed temporarily due to an injury or surgery, or part of a larger disability or disease that requires assistance, wheelchairs make a massive difference in a person’s ability to function in the world. Unfortunately, not everyone who needs a wheelchair is able to get one. In fact, there are tens of millions of people around the world who need wheelchairs.

In honor of this day, perhaps it would be a good idea to help out someone who needs it by making a donation. The Wheelchair Foundation that provides wheelchairs for children or Joni and Friends: Wheels for the World that has many locations throughout the US, take some time to help out with a charity. 

Learn and Share About International Wheelchair Day 

A helpful way to take part in International Wheelchair Day might be to celebrate by raising awareness for the day. Perhaps start by talking to a friend who has a wheelchair and learn more from them, or read about some stories that have been shared online.

It might also be fun to learn some interesting facts about wheelchairs that can then be shared with family members, coworkers, or on social media. Check out some of these trivia points about wheelchairs to get started:

  • The first folding wheelchair was invented in 1932 by Harry C. Jennings, who had a friend with a spinal cord injury. This revolutionary design allowed for even more mobility for wheelchair users.

  • Several different designs of wheelchairs are available based on the person’s specific needs. This includes simple manual transport wheelchairs, full powered chairs with tilting, standing and reclining features, as well as sports wheelchairs.

  • The Guinness World Record for the fastest wheelchair speed was recorded in 2011 when Heinz Frei from Switzerland was clocked going 25.25 miles per hour.

  • Today, wheelchairs can be customized for safety, comfort and convenience with features like seat cushions, armrests, headrests and more. They can even be made with phone holders, cup holders and umbrella holders.

Watch a Wheelchair Basketball Game

Interested in seeing some of the amazing ways that people in wheelchairs can do? One way that some people in wheelchairs have fun and stay fit is through athletics, specifically playing in wheelchair basketball leagues. In honor of International Wheelchair Day, celebrate by supporting some incredible athletes. Check out the National Wheelchair Basketball League website for more information. Throughout the US and Canada there are nearly 200 NWBA sanctioned wheelchair competitions played annually during the season from October to April. 

Get the International Wheelchair Day eBook

Those who are interested in learning more about International Wheelchair Day can get connected by heading over to the day’s website and download the free eBook called The History of International Wheelchair Day. The book offers celebration ideas from previous years as well as catching other interesting facts about the day. 

International Wheelchair Day FAQs

How wide is a wheelchair?

The standard width of a wheelchair is 25 inches or 61 centimeters.[1]

How to build a wheelchair ramp?

Build a simple wheelchair ramp at 36” wide and give it a running ramp of no more than 1:12, with a maximum rise of 30”.[2]

Can wheelchairs go on grass?

While it might depend on the particular model, most wheelchairs are fine on grass.[3]

Are wheelchairs vehicles?

In most US states, wheelchairs and mobility scooters are officially considered pedestrians, not vehicles.

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