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Bringing wheelchairs into the 21st Century

by Robin Kettle

Robin, seated in wheelchair with his dog Molly.

Having recently taken part in research to create accessible footpaths 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 first explain the research conditions. The trials involved attempting to push (or be pushed) in a wheelchair through 100 millimetre depth of varying thickness woodchip.

Well, if like myself you are a wheelchair user you will already know what the result was! Yes, the front wheels simply sunk or dug in. Any forward motion was in fact 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 hard wearing, environmentally friendly and of course cheap! But unfortunately not wheelchair friendly. So what is the answer?

To find the answer we need to go back in-time (no, not Dr Who style) we need to look at the wheelchair as it was designed.

In 1932, Engineer Harry Jennings built the first folding, tubular steel wheelchair (the design as we know it today). That was the earliest wheelchair similar to what is in use today. That chair was built for a paraplegic friend of Jennings called Herbert Everest. Together they founded Everest & Jennings, a company that monopolised the wheelchair market for many years. An antitrust lawsuit 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.

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 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!

About the author

Robin is an access consultant in England and can be contacted via the Access All Areas web site or by email accessauditing@aol.com. He has also recently established the ABLEise disability and health directory UK.

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