Sunday, December 4, 2011

Tennis Balls for Walkers: A Sorry Way to Help Disabled People Get Around Easier

I was finished with my visit at a doctor’s office when he commented on my walker. It was my Stander  walker, a lightweight walnut brown model that I take with me when I drive. 
“Nice walker,” he said. “I’ve never seen one like that.”
It’s a remark I get often, so often I feel like I should get a commission on those walker sales.
Then the physician said, “It’s better than those ones with the tennis balls.” 
To which I responded, “I’ve got one of those, too.” 
“By the way,” he added. “What are those tennis balls for? I’ve always wondered that.”
This was an educated man, a specialist, who was puzzled by walker tennis balls. I understand. I, too, am puzzled. 
The tennis balls
I know what they are for. But I’m not sure how they came to be the go-to accessory for people with walkers. And I don’t particularly like them: they’re difficult to put on, they wear out rapidly and they make me feel clown-like when I really don’t want to call too much attention to myself.
And as I have found with many mobility aids or walker accessories, there is a huge need for improvement.
Here’s what I know about tennis balls on walkers. They make for a smoother walk. Walkers come with either wheels or caps on their four legs. The rubber caps on the back legs wear out fairly quickly, leaving you to scrape along as you walk and possibly mar your floor (I have hardwoods). 
Here’s what I think about tennis balls on walkers. I really, really don’t like them. 
Number One, they are garish.  I mean neon green or flourescent yellow or whatever you call it? And tennis balls? Tennis, sadly, is a dim memory for folks who need walkers. Even walking unassisted is a dim memory for me.
Having sporty balls that practically glow in the dark seems just plain silly and insulting.
My husband once found some pale pink tennis balls that he bought and put on my walker for a change of pace. The idea, I believe, was fashion fun. Instead I found them creepy and mildly obscene.
It’s not just my imagination. People do notice my balls and often comment on them. Children, toddlers in particular, are hypnotized by them. They will stop dead in their tracks, eyes glued to my tennis balls. They will try to get the attention of their parents and try to form the words to ask the question: Why does that woman have tennis balls attached to her ... thing? One mother headed her kid off at the pass, interjecting, “She has trouble walking and the balls help her walk.”
One little boy’s eyes were huge as he pointed and exclaimed to his mother, “Look, she’s got basketballs on her....”
Dogs want to chase them. My cat is afraid of them.
Able-bodied grown-ups don't understand them. I’ve had more than one person ask me what they were for. One woman, accompanying her aging mother, asked my husband and I how to attach tennis balls to the walker.
Which leads me to my complaint Number Two: They are difficult to put on. My husband has to get a sharp kitchen knife and slice a gash in the bottom of each ball, then wiggle it onto my walker. A disabled person could not easily accomplish this.
Complaint Number Three: The soft fuzzy bottoms of the balls don’t stay soft and fuzzy for long. So after a while, you are scraping along again and you need to replace the balls.
Ball complaint Number Four: They’re expensive. My friend who is a tennis teacher gave us lots of used practice balls but they were already worn out and last just a few journeys before they had to be replaced.
There are few alternatives to the balls. Some walkers work with gliders, sort of miniature skis that attach to your walker’s rear legs. But they are hard to find. And replacements are usually in white, which continues the garish look.
Fake tennis balls
I did find a tennis ball look-a-like with removable bottoms in a local drug store. Those are easier to change (you don’t need a knife) but they wear out just as often and it's expensive to keep replenishing the bottom portion.

I found colored balls at another drug store -- blue ones made by Walkerballs. They were precut, but I had to cut mine further to attach them to my walker. They cost around $10 for two, which would be a worthy investment if they last longer than regular tennis balls. 
Blue Walkerballs
Here’s the catch: the package said “for indoor use only”.

That’s not practical for me or other walker users. I try to conserve my tennis balls by using them only inside but I used my blue-balled walker one day for my exercise class. Just walking 30 feet each way in the parking lot on asphalt chewed up my expensive walker balls. The Walkerballs website offers a variety of colors and prints so if someone was only an inside walker, he or she might find a pair an attractive and affordable option.
I also found one company that made walker glides that resemble tiny tennis shoes. That might appeal to some disabled folks, but not this one. I just find it cartoonish.
On a previous blog post, I wrote about how inventors need to come up with better walkers.  (I recently learned that there is a place in Southern California, Nova,  that is devoted to making stylish walkers and other types of aids.) I feel the same way about walker balls:  what’s the point of having a fashionable, modern walker if you’ve got to put tennis balls on it?


  1. I'm looking for an alternative setup for my mother-in-law when I came across your blog. I really enjoyed the comments about the garish balls, and how they effect kids. My wife was laughing, as well as my mother-in-law. My 90 year-young mother-in-law is at that point where we are trying to make things easier for her. Seems there are just not that many things out there for walkers.... Thanks for your comedic comments on tennis balls.

  2. Thanks for your comments. I'm glad I could make you smile.

  3. Came across your blog after searching how to attach the tennis balls my mother requested for her walker. I appreciate your perspective, though, and the frustration at the limited choices. My mother is disturbed by the sound her walker makes when we are out on asphalt, concrete and the hard flooring in stores and restaurants, and the only way we can think to silence it is the tennis-ball solution. The little skis and gliders still make noise, the rubber tips won't slide for her (and she gets too fatigued having to pick it up each step), but she doesn't feel stable with 4 wheels. Guess for her, ugly trumps loud.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story. It is so frustrating when you suddenly have to deal with the world of walkers! Shouldn't be so hard. I love that line: "Ugly trumps loud."

  4. I completely agree, I don't understand why there hasn't been an improvement to the humble tennis ball approach. I bought a pair of the "ski" type gliders to try next.

    1. thank you so much. i am walking after breaking a leg but live in a country where sidewalks are horrendous. i don't need the walker anymore but will try tennis balls on the cane. i need something. i couldn't care less how they look if they do a job.
      and yes, let's lobby for better designed equipment for the disabled or the elderly.

    2. Sorry you are in a place that is so unfriendly to the disabled. Have you checked out the canes with four prongs on the end? I have one of those and it provides more stability than a regular cane. Thanks for your comments supporting my ideas.

    3. i am encouraging a really bright boy i know coming out of high school to think of medical engineering. we are discussing ideas about how to make our sorts of equipment more stable. he wants to study robotics so i asked him to figure out a way for a four pronged cane or a walker to say "step here. it is flat" , or "position to the right". easy stuff for robots inside tubes. and an easy project for college entrance for those so inclined.

    4. That sounds wonderful! Believe me, there will be a huge market for smarter, better mobility aids.

  5. Just spent the money for pre-cut purple balls for my mom's walker-- can't get them on!! I'm looking for a solution, and your post made me smile--
    her walkers back feet have a flat bottom about 1/2 inch out from the cup itself- and they don't seem to come off- oh well. I guess I will just keep trying- oh by the way, I had already bought balls at the dollar store, cut slits and tried to put them on- I could not- they were 2 for a dollar- now I have exactly the same ball (at least it looks so) cost 2.00 ea with the same slit- can't get them on!!

    1. Glad I made you smile. But sorry you can't find an easy solution! I would try to research or contact the walker manufacturer to see if they have any recommendations. I just bought a new walker -- I am always thinking my perfect walker is out there -- and it has weird attachments to the back legs, too, something that my tennis balls or other replacement gliders won't fit onto. And they make an annoying noise on floors. I can't win. I will have to contact the company for advice when those wear out.

  6. If you have to use tennis balls may be this would save you money over the long run and avoid cutting yourself

    1. Thanks for the tip. Looks intriguing. I will definitely check them out.

  7. Maybe they could make rear wheels that when you put your weight on the walker to move your body forward it somehow stops the rear wheels from turning. (Just an idea)

    1. Thanks for the idea. That would help solve the problem of walker brakes that don't really work -- another gripe of mine. We need more people to think about alternatives to the status quo!

  8. I was hoping for a solution to my problem, but all I got was a rant. A polite one, to be sure.

    My wife isn't using the balls for a smoother glide. She is using the walker for long walks that last two hours, and the tennis balls are the only thing keeping the legs from grinding down to nubs.

    I know because I still have the detachable part of the legs of her first walker. They are all of four inches long now, and can be used in a pinch for stabbing if you ever find yourself in a knife fight.

    Anyhow, the balls need to be changed every two days, but only because I came up with the idea of reversing them once they start to wear through. Except...

    ...Except for this one orange ball we found one day at the tennis courts. As you might imagine, we make sure to pass the courts on our walk, so as to pick up strays missed or left by tennis players.

    This thing was pretty solid. Made of rubber, it had hardly any bounce. So I figure it was made for a doggy toy. I cut a hole big enough to go over the leg's tip weeks ago, and it's still going. I made it keep going by making first one, then two more holes to reposition the thing, but still. Weeks!

    Definitely more than a month.

    Unless someone can tell me where to find another solid rubber doggie ball with quarter inch walls, I need to figure my own way to make these things stretch.

    Like cutting my X in the ball as usual, but before attaching it to a leg, pouring liquid nails in the bottom of the ball.

    I tried that today. I'll announce the results if anyone is curious.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Sorry there are no easy answers but at least we can commiserate. Definitely let us know how your experiment works. Or tell us the address of your tennis court so we can be on the lookout for miraculously
      durable orange balls.