The accidental technician – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 30 August, 2015

The accidental technician
August 30, 2015, Sunday Peter Tan,

Wuan has learnt to repair my wheelchair out of necessity.
Wuan has learnt to repair my wheelchair out of necessity.

MY wife Wuan is an accountant by profession. She works in a financial institution where she fiddles with numbers and figures all day long.

“Don’t you feel rich dealing with so much money all the time?” I used to tease her.

“Those are not my money,” she would respond in a matter-of-factly tone.

Needless to say, she avoids doing anything involving numbers when she is not in the office. On those days, she likes to potter around the small patch of a garden she has cultivated with magnolia figo, ylang ylang and a variety of other flowering plants.

In one corner, four adeniums stand in shallow pots with their bulbous roots showing. These were from my mother’s garden. I brought them as presents for her when we met for the first time. They were only tiny sprouts then. How they have grown over the years.

Up to the day we met, she had never known anyone who used a wheelchair. But people could not have known that had they seen how she handled my wheelchair with ease, folding and unfolding it, helping me up kerbs and through narrow spaces as if she had been doing it all her life. That was all only in the first few days after we met.

I was using wheelchairs with steel frames at that time. While they were affordable, they were not exactly durable. Some parts would inevitably break after three years or so. Repairing them was expensive. It made better sense to replace them instead, which was what I usually did.

Steel wheelchairs come in standard sizes. They are heavy, ill-fitting and require some effort to push. The years of using them have exacerbated my backache. My shoulders were giving me problems too from the strain of repetitive pushing.

That was when I decided to invest in a made-to-measure fully-customised titanium frame wheelchair. Although it was insanely expensive, I figured it would reduce the back and shoulder issues that were bugging me. It is light and very manoeuvrable. My backache has since gone away and I feel less strain on my shoulders each time I push now. A good wheelchair does make a difference!

Such an expensive wheelchair also has moving parts that need to be serviced or replaced occasionally. One evening not long after I started using it, I had difficulty making it go straight. Something squeaked each time I moved. We found a bunch of hairs tightly wound round the caster, jamming it in the process.

As I bought it directly from the United States, the shops dealing in rehabilitation equipment here were not too keen on repairing it with the excuse that they were not familiar with it or that they did not have the proper tools.

The wheelchair is my only means of mobility. Without it, I would be stranded and lose all my independence, especially when I am home alone during the day while Wuan is out working. A desperate situation like that called for desperate measures. We went to a local hardware shop to get suitable tools to try to fix the problem. Fortunately, the wheelchair came with a manual with instructions on assembling and disassembling the various components.

Even then, it was a daunting task. Wuan was not mechanically inclined. The only time she ever held a tool in her hand was either to tighten a screw or hammer in a nail. There was little need for her to go beyond that in the course of her work or daily routine. And now, she had to repair a wheelchair. She was not sure if she could manage but we had no choice.

Unscrewing the nut from the bolt needed a little more strength than she could exert. After struggling for 20 minutes, she finally managed to disassemble the caster from the fork. She put it back together again after making sure all the hair and grime had been removed. Just to be sure, she did the same with the other caster as well. One hour later, both casters were spinning like a top. I felt guilty when I noticed her chipped fingernails and soiled hands. She saw the look on my face and knew what I was thinking.

“It’s all right,” she said, “I can trim the nails and wash my hands.” She has since learnt to perform other crucial adjustments to make the wheelchair work better for me. Amazingly, she has also become adept at replacing the inner tubes, rim tapes and tyres. A few days ago, she had difficulty inflating one of the wheels. The problem was traced to a faulty valve. She took three minutes to switch it with a new one and all was good again.

We keep a small bag of tools and spare parts handy for quick repairs and adjustments. With her around, I no longer have the fear of being stranded somewhere should something go wrong with my wheelchair. I am blessed to be loved by a woman who would go to great lengths to learn new skills just for my well-being and peace of mind. She is heaven-sent.

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Author: Peter Tan

Peter Gabriel Tan. Penangite residing in the Klang Valley. Blissfully married to Wuan. A LaSallian through and through. Slave to three cats. Wheelchair user since 1984. End-stage renal disease since 2017. Principal Facilitator at Peter Tan Training specialising in Disability Equality Training. Former columnist of Breaking Barriers with The Borneo Post. This blog chronicles my life, thoughts and opinions. Connect with me on Twitter and Facebook.