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Woodworking with Multiple Sclerosis - A Woodworker Makes Small Projects with a Disability
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Dr. Phil Gross in his workshop Dr. Phil Gross made several changes to his workshop in order to accommodate the limitations imposed by his disability.

I was 30 years old and finishing my training in orthopedic surgery when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. A wise neurologist advised me not to abandon my dreams but rather to work with my hands and enjoy life as long as possible. For 30 years, I practiced general orthopedics with a specialty in hip and knee joint replacements. At home, with my wife, Jo, and three children, I enjoyed my workshop, so Jo suggested I make the yearly Christmas presents. I naturally depended on my hands to create ideas for projects ranging from wood pieces to metal and wire sculpture.

In my late 50s, I began to wonder if my legs would hold up through a surgical procedure. This time, I took the advice of Yogi Berra and decided to “get off the mound before getting hit.” I retired. The first few years, I finished some research, studied medical ethics, traveled and read books for fun. Then, the disease progressed. I could not walk anymore and was desolate from lack of physical activity. Gradually, I began to think about working with my hands again. I imagined what I could and could not do. I dared to dream of a woodshop and began putting one together. I would work with wooden joints. And, so I have.

Phil Gross' work area Dr. Gross is able to use his upper body for most shop tasks, and keeps all his hand tools at arms' length from his stool.

My disability involves marked loss of use of the lower extremities and minimal loss of the upper extremities. I am confined to a wheelchair but am able to transfer to a stool and work at the bench or on one of my machines.

Disabilities come in many variations, and each person responds in his or her own way. I am bold to explain how I enjoy the challenges and trust my experience will help others.

Fortunately, my shop is very small. The floor space is 12 by 18 foot. I have two standard workbenches, a table saw, band saw, scroll saw, router table, drill press and two lathes — one a mini-lathe and the other standard size. I ambulate through the maze of machines and benches using each as a grab bar until I sit on my stool and carry out whatever function is indicated.

Phil Gross small projects For Dr. Gross, the focus is on small projects he can finish in one session but are still attractive and functional.

As a result, my projects are designed to fit my abilities. I keep the projects small in order to create them in a sitting position. Boxes and trays made on the router table work very well. It’s an opportunity to use box joints, dovetail joints and splines. To add interest, and since we live near the California wine country, I have lined the bottom of trays with wine corks from various wineries.

Phil Gross turning Tool manufactures have started producing adjustable tools made for woodworkers with disabilities like this lathe from Oneway.

Carving also interests me. As long as the project is kept small, I carve sitting down. Working with the lathe is my favorite pursuit. Because of balance problems, the lathe is particularly suited for me. Sitting gives me a relatively stable stance and is enhanced by one hand on a rigid object, which is similar to the third leg on a stool. This is provided with my left hand secured on the tool-rest holding the tool stable while the right hand directs the angle and the depth of the cut. There are detailed instructions on the stance needed for good woodturning, and these have to be modified to the sitting position. There are obviously enough disabled people to provide a market, as at least two major lathe producers offer lathes for use in the sitting position.

I am aware of the risk of picking up objects — like a screw on the floor. In this case, a device to grasp things is helpful. Some of these grabbers come with a magnet at the tip, which simplifies picking up small metal objects.

Another common problem for me is loss of balance. Falling down usually occurs when I do not have the patience or sense to use the grabbing device to pick something off the floor. When this happens, I call for help through a service agency. This is done by use of a device, worn like a wristwatch, and activated by pressing a button. A radio signal is transmitted to a central depot from which a caller talks and finds out what I need. The caller then contacts the appropriate number, and help comes.

Something has to be said about safety. As disabled people, we are very vulnerable. Therefore, any maneuver on the various machines should be well thought-out before we start. In my small shop, I not only have to see if there is enough room to feed the board into the machine, but also plan the space for the board to emerge. Fatigue is another problem often ignored and makes us more prone to accidents. When tired, we should stop working.

My workshop is my refuge. Not many activities I am able to do are as available or afford as favorable an outcome. Fearful of losing my creative energy, I am not tempted to enter the production mode. There are people who do this well, but I realize my limits. By giving away most of my finished pieces, I continue to enjoy the craft and reap immeasurable satisfaction.

posted on February 1, 2011 by Dr. Phil Gross
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5 thoughts on “Woodworking with Multiple Sclerosis - A Woodworker Makes Small Projects with a Disability”

  • Carol Snobeck
    Carol Snobeck July 30, 2014 at 3:43 am

    This is such a wonderful article. I had the pleasure of working for Dr. Gross at Orthopedic Associates, Sioux Falls, SD and being apart of his families life. I thank him for such an insight into the adaptation with MS to another step in his life. Warm wishes and prayers to Jo and the family.

  • frank

    This is to say the least a most inspirational testimony of not giving up on life, but rather making the very best of a bad situation. It is too bad the rest cannot quit wining and do what is needed to getter done so to peak. Great read thanks for the kick in the pants as needed.


  • SHAGGY44

    Thank you for the thought-provoking article. And especially for sharing your personal thoughts and feelings. I have been going through a number of medical challenges since just before retirement which have left me mildly disabled (or "Physically challenged"). I have returned to woodworking (and just creating stuff with my hands) after about a 35 year hiatus. What an enormous blessing it has become! I struggle to think "I can STILL do small projects" vs. "I can ONLY do small projects," so your article about "making lemonade" was very helpful!

  • Attie Hattingh

    It was great to see somebody in the world with the same problem/interest as myself.

    I am a keen woodworker but seriously limited with Multiple Sclerosis.

    Take care and many safe woodworking hours.

    South Africa

  • Larry Crouch

    You people are so encouraging. I am 62 years old and ended up in a wheel chair from a plane crash some 9 years ago. My wood shop has been reworked with help from my dad and friends so that I can get around and do what I want to do. Work benches have been modified so that I can roll under them and do my work, my equipment has been lowered where possible so that I can reach them to do my work. I make my lemonade where possible.

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