Thirteen years ago, I was working full-time for a small charity in Reading and relying on an electric wheelchair provided by the NHS Wheelchair Services. I remember the day I got the chair – it was one they just had in the department and wasn’t customised to me even though I regularly suffered with back problems and really needed proper support.
I was told it was the only wheelchair available – take it or leave it. Given that I had a job to hold down, I had little choice but to accept what was on offer, even though I knew the wheelchair was unsuitable for my needs. It was predominantly an indoor chair and wouldn’t last the distance with what I needed it to do.
It wasn’t long before my fears were realised. The chair kept cutting out – sometimes in the middle of busy roads on my way to work. Most times, I’d be able to get it going again and limp on to my destination. But the wheelchair wasn’t fit for purpose. When I phoned the wheelchair services, they were less than helpful.
On one occasion, I was told to push the wheelchair home. Absolutely no joke. I won’t repeat my response to that one.
On other occasions, I’d be left days, even weeks, without any wheelchair as they tried to fix it. The wheelchair service had absolutely no regard for the fact that I had a job to get to. Eventually, I realised that relying on the wheelchair service was not compatible with living an independent live. I was just being left, isolated at home and there was no urgency to getting a functional wheelchair to me.
I decided to use my DLA, as well as loans, to buy a wheelchair privately. I know this isn’t an option for many people but I felt I had no choice – my independence was being disregarded and my job at risk if I kept being unable to turn up.
All these years on and I’m hearing there’s being little change to the NHS Wheelchair Service. An active Twitter user, I’m hearing about other wheelchair users being unable to even make contact with the Wheelchair Service. When contact is eventually made, users are still being left days without their chairs – just isolated at home, with no indication of when a solution will be forthcoming.
It’s 2023. Disability equality has been recognised in law for almost three decades. And yet, here we are. I sense a new campaign in the making.