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Why Is Getting a Power Wheelchair in the U.K. so Difficult?

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Living in Northern Ireland, I am acutely aware of the pressures on the health and social care system here. As someone who relies heavily on that very system to keep me alive, and to help give me an enjoyable life to live, I take my ideas to commissioners to save unnecessary spending and pressure on the health service here.

One of the few areas where Northern Ireland can claim they are leading the way is in wheelchair provision. In my very young days, my family had to buy expensive powered wheelchairs for me, but with the support of our NHS occupational therapist.

My wheelchair is an extension of my body. To change wheelchairs is a huge source of anxiety. It’s not as simple as getting the wrong size or material and returning it to the shop for an exchange. I must work with bioengineers, occupational therapy, wheelchair manufacturers, and my own lived experience to tailor every part of every wheelchair to my needs.

Sometimes we need to chop bits off, make foot plates higher with foam, make the controls more or less responsive, and add all sorts of little things that make my chair functional, comfortable and efficient at being my legs.

Wheelchairs are independence and freedom.

Once I was in my early teens, a campaign had taken place by a group of young people to get the NHS in Northern Ireland to fund powered wheelchairs for disabled people. They did fund some, but the most specialist chairs people like me needed were not covered under the funding.

The campaign focused on how uncomfortable – and dangerous! – a pair of shoes that don’t fit properly are. A cut on your heel could get infected and cause a preventable strain on the NHS.

Wheelchairs that don’t fit a disabled person’s body pose the same danger. Pressure sores, cuts, or even injury are all possibilities. I fell victim to a faulty joystick on a relatively new chair – I crashed and I spent almost a year rehabilitating the muscle and ligament damage in my foot, including several trips to hospital, lots of strong pain relief and need for extra physiotherapy support.

They won their campaign, and as a result disabled people in Northern Ireland can get the wheelchair they need from the NHS. It makes sense – it saves money from injury or the consequences of ill-fitted wheelchairs. Disabled people can get out of bed, enjoy their lives and contribute to our economy.

However, this is not afforded to my friends in other parts of the U.K.

In England, a voucher scheme is available from the NHS. But for people with complex disabilities and needs like mine, these vouchers only cover the tip of the iceberg. Wheelchairs cost more than your average car. And with high disability unemployment and few sources of funding for disabled adults, many turn to crowdfunding or a combination of techniques.

A friend of mine recently discussed his journey in getting a new wheelchair on Muscle Owl Talks. He spoke of frustration at the cost of wheelchairs, but also at the lack of NHS funding. Without a suitable wheelchair he could be stuck in bed, unable to do anything outside his own home.

It hurts that my friends in the rest of the U.K. are struggling with something so simple as a wheelchair. Westminster is a busy place, but surely they can look to Northern Ireland and see the benefits of disabled people being able to get out and about.

I hope the U.K. government sit down together to find a solution to this huge issue. It’s extremely uncomfortable to be in the wrong wheelchair. A wheelchair that people are having to fundraise tens of thousands of pounds to pay for. It’s time for a rethink.

Muscle Owl Talks Ep91: Access to Wheelchairs in the UK (March 2018)

How are wheelchairs funded, and should it be changed? One of our co-editors, Vivek, is facing difficulties at the moment in securing a new wheelchair that meets his needs. Michaela, on the other hand, tells us how in Northern Ireland the situation is much different.Should necessary wheelchair access be assured by the state? In this weekend's episode we put forward our views as to why, and why this is often a misunderstood and under-discussed issue.#wheelchairs #access #wheelchairfunding #musculardystrophy

Posted by Muscle Owl on Friday, March 23, 2018

Getty image by FroggyFrogg.

Originally published: April 24, 2018
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