What price independence?

Those of you who know me reasonably well will know that I’m a bit of a petrol head. I simply love driving! I know that’s not terribly cool theses days given the effects on the planet, but I blame my obsession on the fact that I’m a wheelchair user and as a result, I love the freedom that driving gives me.

In my time I’ve driven some pretty incredible motors. My journey started way back in the 1960’s with the appropriately named Tippen Delta 2 a three-wheeled invalid carriage supplied by the then Ministry of Health which preceded the Motability Scheme. I managed to overturn my aptly named “Tippen” on several occasions. These vehicles were primitive, unreliable and eventually banned from Britain’s roads in 2003 as they were deemed to be too dangerous! Those of us who survived this unique driving experience used to wonder whether this was a secret initiative designed to reduce the population of disabled drivers!

Picture of a Tippen Delta 2 invalid carriage
Tippen Delta 2 1962

After seven years of crashing around in invalid carriages, I bought my first “proper” car a used two-seater sports car the MG Midget; a Porsche-engined VW Beetle followed, then a Saab Aero. I ended this extravagant period of my life with a BMW 5 Series, a Mercedes E class estate and finally a Range Rover!

The invalid carriage was an ill-equipped, unreliable and dangerous vehicle but I loved it. I still remember the pleasure and excitement of being able to go out when I pleased; I could go where I wanted and most of all I had control and choice. The Range Rover provided all of the same benefits but with leather seats!

As I’ve got older and my physical abilities have waned I’ve moved from walking on crutches to using manual wheelchairs and now to powered wheelchairs. This physical deterioration has had a profound effect on what vehicles I am now able to drive. The observant among you will quickly realise that you can’t fit a large powered wheelchair into most saloon cars. My solution has been to use wheelchair accessible vehicles (WAV) supplied via the Motability Scheme. So the wheel has turned full circle!

MG Midget Sports Car
MG Midget Sports Car

The Motability Scheme is a far cry from the old invalid carriage days and has provided complete driving solutions to hundreds of thousands of severely disabled people for years; incidentally, they celebrate their fortieth anniversary in May.  I’ve variously leased through the Scheme a Chrysler Voyager, a VW Transporter and currently a VW Caddy. All accomplished, reliable vehicles but not quite BMWs although the costs including adaptations are not that different.

For many severely disabled people, their only real option for independent travel is the Motability Scheme, but the government’s recent changes to the benefits system are having a profound negative effect. Since 2013 51,000 people have had to return their Motability vehicles because they failed to satisfy the new criteria used to qualify for higher rate personal independent payments (PIP). It is estimated that the final figure will be closer to 150,000 returned vehicles. What lies behind these numbers are individual human stories. Disabled people are potentially losing their jobs because they can’t get to work, being prevented from seeing family and friends, stopped from going on holiday, reliant on others for medical appointments, shopping and leisure pursuits.

The Motability Scheme plays a vital role in ensuring that disabled people can live independently. For many of those who use the Scheme, it is the only way they can afford to lease an appropriate vehicle for their level of impairment. The draconian measures being used to reduce the benefits bill are having a devastating and disproportionate impact on the lives of many disabled people, for those who rely on PIP in order to fund their personal transport, the future looks very bleak indeed.

It’s one thing to have less money to spend, most of us have been through that,  it’s quite another to also lose your ability to live independently.

 

Whatever happened to innovation?

Earlier this month I made my annual pilgrimage to the Mobility Roadshow, this year held at the home of British motorsport, Silverstone. On arrival, I bumped into a couple of old friends, one of the reasons I go. They recounted horror stories about parking a long way from the exhibition halls and having to wait for over an hour for wheelchair accessible courtesy buses.

Picture of part of the circuit at Silverstone and one of the Exhibition halss
Silverstone racing circuit

Note to organisers; if you organise a major event where vast numbers of wheelchair users are likely to attend then locate parking close to the venue, preferably not on grass, if this isn’t possible then find another site!

After spending an hour familiarising myself with the layout of the Show, I began the search for the new kit. You know the sort of thing, wheelchairs that will climb bridlepath styles, powered wheelchair batteries that last a year and weigh less than a kilo, solar powered accessible vans, scooters that elevate so you can reach the top shelves in the supermarket. Sadly none of this was in evidence. More of the same old stuff, being demonstrated by less than enthusiastic sales teams who had an air of “I wish I were somewhere else” about them.

There was one headline grabbing piece of kit, called the Genny. As manual wheelchair users, we know how easy it is to get our small wheels stuck in pavement cracks or tramlines, the joy of dog poo on our hands, getting soaked because we can’t wheel around and carry a brolly.

The Genny is designed to eliminate these problems. It is a two wheeled powered device, based on the Segway, it’s full of gyroscopes and smart tech which enables the user to turn on a sixpence (remember those!). It climbs kerbs, goes across fields, you can carry an umbrella while holding hands with a loved one,  and, most importantly, you look cool while you’re doing it. There is only one tiny little drawback the Genny cost around £13,000!

All in all, I found the Show somewhat disappointing, it felt jaded and lacked pizzazz and excitement. If the organisers want to ensure we’ll all come back next year, they must find ways of encouraging inventiveness and innovation. They could make a start by reducing the costs for smaller companies so that they can afford to rent stands to showcase their products.

Now where can I lay my hands on £13,000?

Almost forgot, here are the links to some interesting disability stories.

Baroness Campbell urges disabled people to stay in the EU

Disability confident attracts just 40 mainstream private sector partners in 3 years