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Thursday, 24 May 2007

Bringing wheelchairs into the 21st Century

I have to thank Robin of Access Auditing for this excellent post.

Bringing wheelchairs into the 21st Century

I recently part in research to create accessible footpaths made out of recycled chip bark and the testing of their level of usability for wheelchair users. I came to one very important conclusion. Let me firstly explain the research conditions:

Trials involved attempting to push/be pushed in a wheelchair through 100mm in depth of varying thickness woodchip. If like myself you are a wheelchair user you will already know what the result was! Yes, you got it the front wheels simply sunk in and refused to budge. Any forward motion was impossible (with or without assistance)

In an ideal world wood chip or bark would be the best possible surface in woodland pathways, cheap to produce, convenient to acquire and very soft to fall or walk on also hardwearing, environmentally friendly and of course cheep! But unfortunately not at the slightest wheelchair friendly. So what is the answer? Do you car? Well here goes anyway.

To find the answer we first need to go back in-time (No, not Dr Who style) we need to look at the wheelchair as it was designed many moons ago in 1932 in fact.

Engineer, Harry Jennings, built the first folding wheelchair. (The design very much the same as we know it today) That was the earliest wheelchair, as I say, very similar to what is in use today.

The chair was built for a paraplegic friend of Jennings called Herbert Everest. Together they founded Everest and Jennings, a company that monopolised the wheelchair market for many years. (Taking us for a ride as it were) An law suit was actually brought against Everest & Jennings by the Department of Justice, who charged the company with rigging wheelchair prices. The case was finally settled out of court. (Surprise surprise)

Anyway, that’s your history lesson for today but what this tells us is that design has not really changed that much for nearly 80 very long years! Yes, there are lighter versions but the basic style remains. Two big wheels at that back, two little wheels at the front.

Again going back in time we need to remember that in the 30’s wheelchair users were mainly institutionalised and having access to the outside world (let alone woodland areas and any public areas) was not expected or even considered necessary, let alone a legal right as it is today.

So the answer to the problem of gaining wheelchair access in not only woodland pathways but beaches, grass, gravel etc etc is very simply, redesign the wheelchair so that it meets the needs of today’s users, not those of 70+ years ago!

I never promised the answer, simply stating the problem, one that is maybe not immediately obvious.





Wheels said...

Sounds more like a good grumble I should say. Look, laws, moral obligations and all, we can't expect the whole world to settle to suit wheelchair users; we have to compromise. Now, you don't say what your proposal for a modern wheelchair may be, though for nearly all the time current designs work rather well. You didn't mention the chairs with the drive wheels at the front that the NHS used to issue. They would work on wood chips.

Other wise, hand cycles or even an extra front wheel that I have seen somewhere would allow you onto wood chip paths easily.

Philip. said...

Some good points wheels!