Hi, I'm Dave Mulder. This is my website, where I write about user experience and product design.

Originally Published: March 2, 2011

What I learned while walking on crutches

I am an avid basketball player. Like anyone who participates in sports, basketball players accept the risk of injury in exchange for the enjoyment of athletic competition.

I have had my fair share of injuries over the years. Scraped knees on outdoor pavement. Ankles that get repeatedly twisted and turned. Bruises on practically every surface of my body. Aches in muscles I did not even know I had. I have even been sucker punched in the face, but that’s another story.

My most recent trip to the basketball court was for a regular Sunday morning pickup game. Everything was normal until I went to make a sharp cut toward the basket and felt an even sharper pain in the back of my leg. Given the physical nature of basketball, my first thought was that someone had kicked me. But when I turned around to verbally retaliate, there was nobody home.

The sensation of being kicked or bitten in the back of your leg is a tell-tale sign that a muscle has a torn. In my case, that muscle was the medial gastrocnemius; and not a complete rupture, but partial. Recovery time for this type of injury is roughly 2-4 months. Though it is hard to imagine not being able to play basketball all winter, I consider myself lucky; an achilles tear would have required surgery and a year-long recovery period.

My injury debilitated me in a way I had never experienced: I could not walk. Literally. The gastrocnemius, a key muscle in normal walking gait, was unable to perform its duty. I was on crutches for 3 weeks until enough strength returned to walk (with a serious limp).

As an advocate for accessibility, the most powerful way to teach is through first-hand experience. That’s not usually practical; so when I train others on accessibility features I show examples of how someone who is blind browses a website.

Accessibility in the built environment is just as an important.

  • Narrow gaps between furniture make for difficult passage.
  • Stairwells with shaky handrails are frightening.
  • Laundry and laundry baskets in the walk-in closet require hiking gear to summit.
  • Icy sidewalks are life-threatening.

Because moving around is a major undertaking, you have to think about everything you could possibly need before you try going to your destination. Forgetting one essential item means a painstaking, cumbersome journey back to wherever it is. I learned this lesson the hard way when I made the 10-minute journey to my car after work only to discover that I had forgotten my keys. Yes, my upper body was quite sore that evening.

Now months later, a few of the habits are sticking. The constraints and perspective I faced while on crutches have made my regular life more accessible. That’s really neat, and serves as a personal reminder that accessibility bleeds into usability.