Life as a great adventure – Maik Birko is living this dream. The 41-year-old is currently preparing for a trip to Norway. But the path to a self-determined, cosmopolitan life was not easy for the Hamburg resident. Which challenges he had to face, who he is particularly grateful to and how he rolls otherwise, he tells us on REHACARE.com.
Name: Maik Birko Age: 41 City: Hamburg, Germany Occupation: Currently in full preparation for my Norway adventure, then open for new things Disability: Paraplegic since 2005 with residual function in knees and thighs
Maik Birko: Experiencing adventures, going where no wheelchair user has ever gone before, circling the Outer Alster in fantastic weather, enjoying a glass of beer, wine or whatever with good friends. You can get a lot out of a day in the life if you only want to. Of course, there are days when it just doesn't work out. But if you really want to, there are at least two good days for every bad one.
Which auxiliary means or daily living aids are indispensable for you?
Maik Birko: My wheelchair is my constant companion – nothing works without it. I have currently packed my wheelchair so full of bags and a backpack that there is room for all my equipment for my Norway adventure. Together with my 100-litre backpack, this setup is indispensable for me, my intention and my training. I've been flirting with a leader bike for a few years now. But tools like these are just so incredibly expensive that this little dream will have to wait a while.
What would you like to see from society and your fellow people in dealing with people with disabilities?
Maik Birko: More acceptance, understanding and above all curiosity! I experience it so often that people see a wheelchair as a disability – but exactly the opposite is the case. My wheelchair gives me the freedom to do whatever I want. Without those two wheels and two castors under my bum, I would really be disabled. Curiosity refers to some people's stares. I wish people would just come and ask, "What happened to you?". Although our society has developed well in this respect, there is still a lot of room for improvement.
Which assistive device would urgently need to be invented and/or improved?
Maik Birko: A rocket-powered wheelchair.... no, of course not. Basically, I think the assistive technology industry is on the right track. There are wheelchairs for all kinds of requirements, aids for everyday needs such as eating, showering and the like. There are now even exoskeletons, which admittedly still need some development. Of course, there is always room for improvement, but all in all, disabled people are already pretty well positioned.
I would also like to see assistive devices in general become more affordable. Here in Germany, it's already a struggle to get the costs for an aid covered. But in other countries where, for example, paraplegics crawl around on the floor without a wheelchair, aids are simply too expensive. These people depend on donations, one-off actions by the government or aid organisations because they simply have no other choice. And even though I can't do anything about it myself – because the problem is simply too big for that – I would like to see aids become more affordable.
For Maik Birko, life is a great adventure – and his wheelchair is his constant companion.
What has been your biggest challenge so far that you have mastered – and what has helped you?
Maik Birko: It's hard to admit, and at first I thought about whether I really wanted to admit it here. But I decided to do it because it is part of my life and has made me who I am today: I lived on the street for about five months, and yes, I was already in a wheelchair at that time. That was in the winter of 2009 / 2010. I had some setbacks in life and I just got on a train in my hometown Dresden, went to Hamburg and decided to stay here.
It was quite a challenge because I couldn't sleep in a sleeping bag on the street like other homeless people – the risk of my wheelchair being stolen was just too high. I mostly slept at the station or, thanks to the free travel voucher, sitting up in suburban trains. With my upper body on my knees, my cap pulled deep into my face and wrapped up thickly. Since most homeless facilities are not accessible and the few that were were overcrowded, I had no other choice.
Eventually I ended up in hospital with urological problems and hypothermia, where I was nursed back to health and then transferred to BG Klinikum Boberg. When the treatment was about to end, the doctor in charge let me stay an extra week at his own expense because he didn't want to send me straight back out on the street. Of course, that was only an emergency solution and in the end that's exactly what would have happened again. But Boberg got me accommodation in the infirmary in the former harbour hospital. This is practically a small hospital for homeless people. Thanks to the Krankenstube, I had the opportunity to continue my recovery and also to start looking for a flat.
In a nutshell, I found a flat and was no longer forced to live on the street. It was a challenge that I mastered thanks to BG Klinikum Boberg, Caritas Hamburg and Krankenstube. Many thanks again to all the people who supported me in word and deed and made it possible for me to escape homelessness.
What can the assistive technology industry learn from the Corona pandemic to make life easier and/or better for people with disabilities in the future?
Maik Birko: To see people as human beings and not just as customers. I don't want to lump everyone together here, but when you are told on the phone: "You have to clarify this with your medical supply store because you are not a self-payer", then you realise as a person what you are regarded as. And that was a simple question about the functioning of my wheelchair, which they could have easily answered.
If nothing was impossible: Who would you like to meet one day and why?
Maik Birko: Robin Williams! He sweetened my childhood and youth with his films and, by all accounts, was a wonderful person. Rest in peace, Robin Williams.
What was your best REHACARE experience?
Maik Birko: This year, together with the Invictus Games, my first visit to REHACARE is coming up. I am looking forward to exciting days in Düsseldorf. At least as long as I come back safe and sound from Norway, no bear eats me and no moose takes me on its antlers.
What I wanted to say...
Maik Birko: To all disabled people: Don't let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do. If you have a dream, pursue it, no matter how strange or unattainable it may seem at first. If it turns out to be impossible, then at least you have tried and are not left wondering if it would have worked. To all helpful walking people: Please ask before you push or help!