"One should be a piece of art..."
Oscar Wilde

Doing disability
Decorating canes and walkers
Using what I have
Sitting in style
La Lucha the scooter
"How do you do it?"
"How can I help?"
Call for Entries

Doing Disability

Each person does disability in her or his unique way. I say does rather than has to point out the active nature of being disabled. Though individuals might see their medical condition as something that happens to them, how they respond is their own choice. What I do is core to who I am.

I am an artist, writer and storyteller. So in 1988, when I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) at the age of 46, I responded creatively. I painted, journaled, wrote stories, made sculpture...trying to express my feelings and begin to incorporate this unexpected reality. Fears--particularly of ending up isolated in a nursing home--showed up symbolically in the form of a purple-brown circle lurking at the edge of my paintings. Soon after receiving the diagnosis,I traveled to Ontario's Point Pelee, my traditional sacred place of healing. On the shores of Lake Erie, a triangular-shaped piece of driftwood called to me. I returned home and put together a piece of sculpture using the wood as a woman's hips and legs, while modeling her upper body, head raised in supplication, out of supple clay...a wooden-legged woman. A story emerged--"Olly, Olly In Free"--that used a childhood chant to emphasize the need to come home to oneself on the path to healing. My journal was filled with fear, rage, despair and hope. During this time, my body was still strong: occasional falls being my primary symptom.

Decorating canes and walkers

Five years passed. During that time, I began to use a cane when walking long the march in Detroit celebrating Nelson Mandela's release from prison, and in Washington, DC to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Archbishop Romero's assassination in El Salvador. As a style-conscious artist, I shunned orthopedic devices, preferring a crook-shaped piece of driftwood from the shores of Lake Michigan that I decorated with woodburned designs, feathers and beads. I also used handcarved wooden staffs from Africa. Every time it rained--or snowed as at the Washington march--and I dropped the lovely carved lion or giraffe, its head fell off! Two such accidents decided me: my next cane had best be aluminum.

  But it was so ugly! Silver-colored metal, shaped like an upside-down J, holes up the side for adjusting height and a black rubber handle. Playing with my art supplies, I soon discovered collage was a medium well suited to its surface. Within two hours, I had a rainbow-tissue collaged cane at my side. Again, rain taught me an additional trick...polyurethane varnish for protection.

In 1996, I started migrating from Detroit to San Francisco for the winter months. Without a car, my legs got a strenuous workout in this beautiful city of hills. My sublet apartment in the Mission was, in essence, a third-floor walk-up. Buses--even though they "kneeled" to pick me up--still had steep steps to climb, and the BART to East Bay was several long blocks away. Three face-first falls, resulting in black eyes and an emergency room visit, gave me pause. I had to find a way to better protect my body from injury. Thus the wheeled walker--lightweight, foldable and easy to carry up steps--came into my life.

And I had thought the cane ugly! The afternoon the walker was delivered, I started collaging this aluminum reminder of my nursing home fears. Not to be melodramatic, but the truth is that tears mixed with the acrylic medium I used to paste the colored craft paper onto the walker that day. In the early evening, I took it for a walk around my neighborhood and was able to venture farther than ever before. At an herbal shop, I bought a small deerskin pouch filled with "protection" herbs to hang from the front crossbar. That night, my walker changed from enemy to ally.

For over three years, this orthopedic device--now called windchime walker--has been an artistic and spiritual work-in-progress. Bells, crystals, windchimes, beads, feathers, Mexican cornhusk flowers, bracelets woven by Bosnian refugee women, a Zen medallion, a fabric doll with grey hair, copper spiral from a goddess celebration--each with a story to tell--have turned this device into a ritual altar inviting celebration. Children come and play here, strangers smile and speak, I feel good about myself, and perhaps other differently abled persons get new ideas.

Responses to my walker have ranged from a three-year-old's, "Look, Mommy! She's a fairy godmother!", to the multiple-pierced, spike-haired young man who whistled, "Killer walker!" as we passed in San Francisco's Haight-Asbury district, and more recently, at the 1999 National Women's Music Festival, "Here comes the spiritual Good Humor truck!".

Beyond form, I've played with function. When I expressed the need for a cane-holder on my walker, my friend Phil Ouelette ingeniously used lime-green strips of velcro. About a year ago, as the fatigue-factor upped its ante, I started dreaming of a seat attached to my walker. With input from countless friends and interested strangers, I designed and had installed a lemon-yellow canvas seat slung between the two side bars using S-hooks and grommets. My walker's back wheels have braking capacity so I don't go rolling away while seated, and the front crossbar acts as a backrest. Quite cozy!


1. To Collage Canes and Walkers--wheelchairs and arm-brace crutches too--gather the following:

For cane:

Colored craft tissue collage: Cover table with newspapers.Tear craft paper into 1-2" pieces. Pour some acrylic medium (I usually use gloss) into the paper cup. Starting at the cane's bottom, collage straight-edge craft paper pieces on the metal around the rubber foot. To collage: hold paper on cane with one finger, and, with another finger, smear acrylic medium over the top and past the edges to glue it to the surface. Don't worry about messy look: it'll dry clear. Do try to avoid leaving clumps of medium, though...they take a long time to dry. Overlap paper pieces--using the same technique--working your way up the cane to the top. At the handle edge, again use straight-edged paper. Do not collage either the rubber foot or the handle. Carefully hang the cane on a doorknob or the side of a table to dry. In an hour or so, brush polyurethane varnish (again, I prefer gloss) over the collaged cane with the disposable foam-rubber brush. Watch for drips...they stay somewhat visible. I like to put on 2-3 coats of varnish, letting each coat dry before applying the next. Be sure to wash out the disposable brush between applications or it will stiffen too much to use. After heavy use, your cane will begin to look a bit "distressed". Just cover tears or scratches with collage and varnish, using the original process. I've covered one cane with as many as 4 new coats of collage.

Origami/rice paper collage: I have also collaged colored metal canes--mine came in black, blue or red--with designs cut out of Japanese papers. In this case, the cane is only partially collaged, with patterned pieces of paper placed randomly over the colored metal. Be particularly careful to glue the paper's edges down securely. The process for applying the collage is the same as described above. When dry, the entire metal surface of the cane is brushed with 2-3 coats of polyurethane varnish.

For walker:

Using colored craft tissue paper, follow the same process...except allow lots more time. On the top front crossbar, be sure to leave room for the folding mechanism to remain free of collage (measure how much is needed when the walker is folded). Avoid collaging the side bars if you plan to attach S-hooks for a seat. I also recommend leaving the adjustable bottoms of each leg free of decoration.

2. To Attach Cane to Walker:

Buy two colorful strips of velcro at a fabric store--or Cliff's on Castro, if you live in San Francisco--and wrap numerous times around either front leg of the walker (mine is on the right). The strips we bought came with a buckle that helps secure it to the walker. Position one strip about 3-4" (7.6-10cm) down from the front crossbar, and the other, 4-5" (10-12.7cm) down from the first. On my walker, both strips are placed at the juncture of crossbars. Be sure to leave a 6" (15.2cm) strip free at the end, to hold the cane. I find hooking my cane handle on the front crossbar, then wrapping the velcro strips around its straight part, helps keep the cane from sliding while I walk.

3. To Create a Seat for a Walker:

First of all, be sure your walker is similarly designed to mine, with side bars about 5" (12.7cm) down from the handrests. I bought a yellow canvas replacement seat/backrest for a deck chair, but I'm sure a bolt of canvas from a fabric store would work fine. At a hardware store, I found eight S-hooks designed for hanging plants. Because I do not sew, I took these materials--and my walker--to a shop specializing in alterations and shoe repair. A happy combination, as it turned out! Nini extended the backrest by taking material from the deck chair seat, ending up with a hemmed strip of canvas measuring 26" (66cm) long and about 7" (17.78cm) wide, with 2" (5cm) hems for strength on the short ends. Her son, the shoemaker, placed four large grommets--evenly placed--on both short sides of this piece of canvas. The S-hooks were opened enough to hook them onto the two crossbars--4 on each one. The other end of each S-hook was slipped into the grommet holes, then the hooks were tightened with pliers so the seat hangs securely from the sidebars. A note of caution: I am a small person weighing perhaps 110 lbs. (49.9kg), so I can't say how much weight this seat can safely hold. After a year of heavy use--OK, so I recently let a pretty sturdy 4-year-old play in it like a swing--a few grommets are beginning to tear from the fabric. But it shouldn't be any problem to replace the canvas seat with a new one...and no longer use it as playground equipment for kids!

©1999 Patricia Lay-Dorsey. Please use with attribution.

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