Last month I spoke about the extreme irony of the UK hosting the Global Disability Summit. In her opening speech Penny Mordaunt, Secretary of State for International Development, announced the launch of ‘Assistive Technology Scale’.  This is to be a global partnership to “transform access and affordability of life-changing assistive technology such as wheelchairs, prosthetics, hearing aids and glasses.” Mordaunt stresses that access to assistive technologies is a “critical enabler for inclusive education, economic empowerment and participation in communities.” The ambition for the ‘Assistive Technology Scale’ is to give 500 million disabled people across the world access to essential assistive technology by 2030.

 Man in wheelchair outside office building

Hearing this will most likely bring to mind images of disabled people struggling in remote communities, in far off developing countries, with poor infrastructure and minimal health care.  But whilst our focus is on these distant horizons, we miss what is happening right in front of us. Under our very noses, disabled people in our own communities are being denied the “critical” technology that Mordaunt champions!

In fact, thousands of children in the UK are being forced to wait four months and over for delivery of a wheelchair from the NHS. A report published in the Health Service Journal (HSJ) reveals that more than 5,100 children (around 82% of those eligible for an NHS wheelchair) had to wait longer than the standard 18 week waiting period. This prevents them from continuing their rehabilitation, attending school and fully participating in family life.

 Wheelchairs lined up

Many of us would be forgiven for believing that the state provides a wheelchair to meet the needs of anyone who requires one.  In fact, many are left months and even years trapped at home, not able to perform the basic daily activities that most of us would not only take for granted but consider a fundamental right.

A BuzzFeed investigation last year, revealed that over a quarter of people referred by GPs to Wheelchair Services are given no equipment at all. The report highlights the postcode lottery that disabled people confront when trying to obtain a wheelchair that meets their needs.  In some areas three quarters of people referred to Wheelchair Services receive absolutely no equipment. Elsewhere, basic wheelchairs or vouchers are provided, which often fall short of providing people with the equipment that is “critical” for them to go to work, attend school and be generally included in society.

In some areas, the NHS has introduced ‘personal wheelchair budgets’. It’s claimed these will give the user greater choice and control over their equipment, but without any extra funding this continues to fail in providing people with what they need.  As a result of this, tens of thousands of families in the position of having to find funding themselves, through crowdfunding or from charities such as Aspire. Many of the applications we receive to the Aspire Grants Programme are from people seeking to fund the short-fall of around £3,000 between the cost of the wheelchair that meets their needs and NHS provision.

It is, of course, absolutely the right thing to do to build global collaboration to enabled disabled people, wherever they live, to get the equipment they need to lead independent lives and participate fully in society. However, for the initiative to be credible it is vital for those in the ‘developed’ world to model successful strategies in this area.  In the case of the UK this must be by ending the postcode lottery by introducing national eligibility criteria and ensuring that sufficient funding is made available for people to obtain the wheelchair that meets their needs and circumstances.

- Andy Shipley, Aspire's Policy Manager