One of the disabled armed service veterans who trekked to the South Pole two years ago with Prince Harry has become the new public face of the user-led charity that campaigns for the rights of disabled motorists.
Duncan Slater, who has been appointed as the external affairs manager of Disabled Motoring UK (DMUK), has himself been a holder of a blue parking badge since he was seriously injured in Afghanistan six years ago.
He was on patrol when the vehicle he was in struck an improvised explosive device, with the explosion throwing him 40 feet and leaving him so badly injured that his right arm was the only part of his body left unbroken.
He later had a double lower leg amputation, and had prosthetic limbs fitted, and was medically discharged from the RAF.
Slater said that joining DMUK six years on was not a difficult decision because of its focus on the importance of independent mobility for disabled people.
After his hospital treatment six years ago, almost the only thing he was allowed to do was drive.
He said: “I had to get a car adapted and I was entitled to a blue badge. I realised quite quickly how much independence you had just by driving.”
He also rides motorcycles, with the help of an adaptation that allows him to change gears with his hands rather than his feet.
“I was keen to get back to riding because I had done a lot of it before,” he said. Continuing his hobby showed him that being an amputee did not mean having to “stop doing the things I enjoy”.
Slater, who has an adapted Motability vehicle, has major concerns about the number of disabled people losing their eligibility for the scheme as a result of the government’s move from working-age disability living allowance (DLA) to its new personal independence payment (PIP).
Motability confirmed last year that more than 100 disabled people every week were losing their Motability vehicles after being assessed for PIP, while some estimates have suggested that as many as 180,000 DLA claimants could eventually be forced to give up their Motability vehicles.
He said: “If you change the goalposts overnight, people are going to be excluded.
“It does seem flawed because you can’t have people who are considered disabled and qualify for Motability and then suddenly it’s taken off them.
“The worry is, what happens to those people now? Are they now struggling?
“I don’t think it will save money in the long run because they will end up having to reply on other services and it just shifts the problem, it doesn’t really solve it.
“You can guarantee that there will be people who really rely on those Motability vehicles and then suddenly they have to hand them back.
“What do they do now? How do they get to the shops? How do they provide for themselves?”
Key among DMUK’s campaigns is the ongoing battle to stop the abuse of accessible parking spaces, which he said can be done by “changing people’s mindsets”, and highlighting why the bays are needed.
Slater said: “People don’t need disabled parking bays because they can’t be bothered walking to the shops.
“We get phone calls from people who, if they can’t get in a blue badge space in their local supermarket… they will go home, and they will wait another few days, and all because someone is in a blue badge space without a blue badge and they want to go to a cashpoint.”
Since 2009, he has had to confront the assumption among many members of the public who see him sitting in his car that he is not entitled to use a blue badge space.
He said: “There is a strange perception that if you see somebody young or younger in a car and they pop into a blue badge space, instantly people are watching, because [they think]‘there’s this young lad, there’s no way he can be disabled.’
“I’ve been told off for taking up blue badge bays. People have got me to wind the window down and told me, ‘You should be ashamed.’
“It’s incredibly frustrating. It’s another reason for being here [at DMUK]. If we can change enough perceptions in people then hopefully that won’t happen to someone else.”
There is also the ongoing fight to overcome the reluctance of councils and other providers to offer car park ticket concessions to blue badge holders.
He said: “It’s trying to get the point across that because you are disabled, it does take you longer to go round the shops, and you are not going to go to the shops as often as most people.”
Part of his job will be to run the charity’s Disabled Parking Award, which offers accreditation for car parks that are accessible for disabled people.
Slater became the first double amputee to trek the last 200 miles across Antarctica to the South Pole in December 2013 as part of a team which was raising money for the charity Walking with the Wounded.
Slater and his fellow team members spent nine hours every day on skis, dragging their belongings behind them, from nine in the morning until six in the evening, in temperatures as low as minus 48 degrees.
But he said the process of trekking through the snow was actually therapeutic and “quite cathartic”, and helped him deal with the serious post-traumatic stress he has experienced since 2009.
“It’s silent,” he said. “No sound, apart from the howling wind. For me, it helped put everything in order. It was lovely.
“Nine hours a day – although you would stop every two hours to eat and hydrate – you were locked into your goggles with your hood up.
“You pick things to think about, your mind just drifts constantly, and two hours will fly by, and when you sit down you feel quite at ease with everything. Mentally, it is really relaxing.
“You literally think about everything to the nth degree and it helped put stuff in perspective – how lucky I was to be there, to survive the blast, to walk again.”
He believes he will be able to take the patience he learned on the trek with him into his new role at Disabled Motoring UK.
And he does not rule out asking Prince Harry to support the charity in the future.
But he added: “It’s not always great to have people of that magnitude, because people overlook the charity, [because they think], ‘you don’t need our help, you’ve got Prince Harry.’
“I would be wary [about approaching him]but if we were doing an event or something where it would really benefit us, then yes, definitely.”