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?