Today (1 March) is the ten year anniversary of the first International Wheelchair Day (IWD). To celebrate, we spoke to the event’s founder, Steve Wilkinson, who told us how he turned it into a global event and why it’s such an important date in the calendar.
I was born with Spina Bifida back in 1953. I had a wheelchair when I was a kid, but preferred to walk, which I could do thanks to the calliper I wore and the walking sticks I used right through until about six years ago.
In 1987 I was on holiday in Florida and went to the Disney theme parks and hired one of their chairs. The freedom it instantly gave me was huge. When I got home, I got my own wheelchair and it allowed me to go much further distances and more comfortably. I couldn’t get anywhere without it now, it’s my life.
I started to campaign about wheelchairs and disability in the 90s when I saw how difficult it was to get into places and the access issues wheelchair users faced.
I worked with a lot of organisations on accessibility issues and campaigns. It made me realise that I wanted to start my own business. I’ve learnt over the years that a lot of good ideas fail because they don’t get enough mass engagement. That’s the biggest thing you need to give an idea momentum.
International Wheelchair Day was born
In February 2008, I started researching International Wheelchair Day and was surprised to find that there wasn’t one. I’m quite an adventurous person so I thought let’s just do something and see what happens.
I chose 1 March in memory of my mother because when I was a child, she was everything to me. She pushed me, both physically in my wheelchair and also as a person to take on challenges and be a positive person. She was my inspiration.
So on 1 March 2008, I put a post out on the internet about it announcing ‘Today is International Wheelchair Day, I know this because I just invented it’. However, these were the days before Facebook and Twitter were big things and nothing happened.
A year later I put another post up and again nothing happened. The third year, I discovered that a disability group in Salisbury had recognised IWD and were having a meeting about wheelchair access. I thought, ‘get in, somebody’s found it!’
It was 2011 when things actually took off. Hannah Ensor, a wheelchair user and a talented cartoonist, got in touch to say she’d heard about IWD and that she’d designed a logo for it. So that was it, out of the blue we had a logo. For every year since, Hannah has designed the official logo and every year it’s slightly different.
That was important because someone else had recognised the day and made it feel official. From there it’s just grown year on year.
In 2012 I went to Australia and met with a disability group in Adelaide and Gail Miller, the author of a book about life in a wheelchair. They were keen to recognise IWD and we held an event attended by the South Australia Disability Minister and Kelly Vincent, a member of the South Australia parliament (who was also a wheelchair user). They also helped me get some interviews on the radio in Australia and it just really took off there.
That year I also got an email from a woman in Nepal. They were having a parade of 80 wheelchair users in Kathmandu to celebrate International Wheelchair Day. For me, that’s become symbolic of what this day is. It’s all about engagement of people in a collective event. Last year they had 239 wheelchair users in their parade. They’re doing it again this year.
Every year I wake up the day after IWD, go online and discover all these different events around the world where people are celebrating it. It’s really gone viral. If you google it now, there are thousands of mentions of it. It’s got a life of its own!
A girl got in touch with me recently and told me that she wasn’t able to get out of bed most of the time. However, the five minutes that she spent outside in her wheelchair on IWD was her celebration. I just think that’s a fantastic story.
The wonderful thing about IWD is that there’s no one way to recognise it. People celebrate it in very different ways.
There are big events happening across the world. People mark IWD here in the UK and in Australia, Nepal, Senegal, South Africa, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the United States of America. There are probably events elsewhere that I’m unaware of. It’s fantastic!
This year is the 10th anniversary of the first International Wheelchair Day, I hope it continues to grow and more people can engage with it and feel a part of something.