Finding a wheelchair ‘is expensive, time-consuming and rarely straightforward’

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Choosing and funding a wheelchair is expensive and time-consuming, and often results in the purchase of unsuitable and uncomfortable equipment, according to new research by a user-led charity.

A survey by the spinal cord injury charity Back Up found that nearly a quarter of respondents had been forced to buy a second wheelchair because their first one was uncomfortable.

And nearly half (48 per cent) said it took them more than a year to find a wheelchair they were happy with, while seven per cent said they had never been happy with their wheelchair.

The survey also found that half of the respondents’ wheelchairs had cost between £1,000 and £4,000, while only six per cent cost less than £1,000.

Back Up said the findings showed the need for more ring-fenced government funding for wheelchair provision, but also the need for “an understanding when assessing people for a wheelchair that basic mobility is not sufficient to live an active, independent life”.

The charity said the cost of wheelchairs meant that many of those coping with a new spinal cord injury had to choose between an affordable wheelchair which may not meet their needs, or paying “a vast sum to get the chair that gives you the best quality of life”.

Figures from Aspire, Back Up’s partner spinal cord injury charity, showed that 70 per cent of the grants it provided were for wheelchairs and mobility equipment.

Of those who had been given an NHS wheelchair voucher and applied to the Aspire grants programme, the average difference between the voucher and the wheelchair they needed was almost £3,000.

Back Up surveyed 540 people with a spinal cord injury or other physical impairment, all of whom were full-time or part-time wheelchair-users.

The charity concluded that “what should be a seamless and painless experience – since it often follows a devastating injury – is in fact rarely straightforward, prohibitively expensive, often disproportionately time consuming and the outcome is frequently unsuitable”.

Separate research commissioned by Back Up from YouGov showed that only 22 per cent of the UK public thought it should take longer than a month for a wheelchair-user to receive a wheelchair they were happy with.

One of those who took part in the Back Up survey, Merryn, from London, said: ‘‘My experience was pretty frustrating. I found it all very daunting and complicated.

“Different funding avenues are confusing and it’s hard to know where to start.

“There needs to be a better way of measuring you up for a wheelchair too. There’s currently no way of knowing if you’ll be comfortable in your new chair before you buy it.

“So it feels like you are risking a lot of money getting measured up for something that still might not feel right.”

Another survey respondent said: “All wheelchairs are far too expensive, you could have a decent second-hand car for what it costs for a decent chair.”

Most first wheelchairs are provided or part-funded by NHS wheelchair services, which offers a wheelchair or a contribution towards one.

But another survey respondent said: “So I asked for the voucher scheme and received a rather big shock. I was entitled to a ‘full’ voucher [of]about £200-£250.

“When I arrived in the shop hoping to purchase a new chair I was told I would need at least £1,000 for one that suited my needs.”

Becky Hill (pictured), Back Up’s chair of trustees, who herself has a spinal cord injury, said: “We believe that wheelchair assessments must take into account the fact that people need wheelchairs that allow them to do much more than just get around their house or flat.

“And with more ring-fenced funding from the government, wheelchair services can allocate chairs that enhance independence, rather than limit it.

“With a quality wheelchair, people can get around where they live, socialise and get actively involved in life.

“Without one, people are more likely to be stuck at home, feeling isolated and depressed.

“It also makes economic sense. NHS England states that for every 182 wheelchair users not able to work, the benefits bill can increase by up to £1m, whereas the positive economic contribution made when in work can be up to £4.7m.

“When people have a good wheelchair, they can work and contribute to society.

“We support people with a spinal cord injury into employment, and know that being able to work brings financial reward, as well as a sense of purpose, a social life and health benefits too.”

A third of those who responded to the Back Up survey said they had received no training in how to use a wheelchair.

Hill said: “As well as having the right wheelchair at the right time, training is absolutely vital.

“It enhances your independence and allows you to do things we all take for granted like getting on the bus, checking out local shops, or just safely carrying a cup of tea into the living room.”

Beth Scrimshaw, head of Back Up’s services, said it was “vital” that people with a spinal cord injury had access to a suitable wheelchair when they were discharged from hospital. 

But she said that NHS specialists were often hampered by “inconsistent standards and processes, by the different and conflicting assessment criteria, and by limited funding”.

Scrimshaw said action was also needed on the “hugely inflated” price of wheelchairs, with survey respondents describing how a good quality wheelchair was similar in price to a second-hand car, or a luxury holiday.

Back Up helps people rebuild their confidence and independence after a spinal cord injury, through wheelchair skills training, a mentoring service and rehabilitative activity courses, which are all run by people themselves affected by spinal cord injury.