Wheelchair provision in this country is, on the whole, pretty poor. It’s something that surprises most people, and certainly whenever the problem comes up you invariably hear, ‘But doesn’t the NHS provide wheelchairs?’ The answer, of course, is that they do, but far too often they work incredibly slowly, they provide basic wheelchairs that are too heavy for prolonged use, and they have such strict criteria that users regularly find themselves ineligible for a chair that they can get out and about in. If all of that comes as a shock to the average person, it certainly shouldn’t do to the powers that be; countless reports, investigations and recommendations have highlighted exactly these failings numerous times over the years.

We were recently approached by a lady who was discharged from a Spinal Injury Centre in June. She’d been given a basic wheelchair on loan whilst she waited for the NHS Wheelchair Service in Shropshire to carry out the necessary assessment and provide her with the permanent wheelchair she needs to get on with her life. When she’d not heard anything for a while, she gave them a call to find out how long she’d be waiting but wasn’t given much information. More frustrating phone calls followed before she approached Aspire. She told us that the loan wheelchair she was in doesn’t support her back properly and she feels it’s affecting her posture. It’s also hard to manoeuvre around her bungalow, and she takes painkillers every day to counter the shoulder pain she has, something that she feels is brought on from making do in this chair. And when she wants to go out, she needs both of her parents to be available to lift the wheelchair into and out of the car as neither she, nor they, can manage it on their own. We called Shropshire Wheelchair Service to find out what was going on.

Shropshire Wheelchair Service’s Manager told us that this lady wasn’t a priority and, therefore, they couldn’t give any sort of indication as to how long it might be until she was assessed. The likelihood, though, is that she wouldn’t get an appointment this year. We later submitted a Freedom of Information request to the NHS Trust to find out a little bit more about what was going on with the Service. Whilst this did tell us that there are just shy of 500 people waiting on their list, it also revealed that their data management is so poor they have no idea how long the average wait is or how long it usually takes them to supply the equipment once an assessment has been carried out.

Shropshire Wheelchair Service is clearly underperforming. Undoubtedly it’s underfunded and the staff are probably incredibly frustrated that they cannot provide a decent service. It’s also far from alone in this respect – for every pocket of good practice in this country, there will be another service where delays and poor quality provision is robbing people of their independence. The Wheelchair Leadership Alliance was launched earlier this year to tackle these problems and it would be great if this latest initiative finally led to some improvements.

Most people are shocked when they find out that disabled people face these issues. But they’re more shocked when they realise that the economic arguments for improved provision also make sense; poor wheelchairs and lengthy delays contribute to complications that cost more to treat than the suitable wheelchair would have done in the first place, they stop people from living full and active lives, returning to work and paying taxes and ultimately the money the NHS spends on a poor wheelchair gets wasted when the user is forced into privately purchasing a new one anyway. It really is time that something was done.

The Wheelchair Leadership Alliance comments: “The Charter launched in July is designed to encourage Clinical Commissioning Groups to specify and Providers to deliver good quality, equitable services across England. During the campaign the Alliance has heard many positive stories and challenging accounts of poor service but we clearly recognise that many service providers around the country are equally dissatisfied and frustrated with their ability to deliver, and are also campaigning for change; however they are limited currently by the level of resources and support given by local commissioners.  The Charter has gained support with over 2500 signatures including 34 MPs and over 100 voluntary organisations and charities who we believe represent a reach of hundreds of thousands of people.

“It is evident that whilst there are pockets of good practice around the country, it is not consistent and much more needs to be done to improve services across the board.  The Alliance will be encouraging everyone to support the need for wheelchair service improvements to be recognised in the NHS England mandate which is due for consultation imminently.  This will inevitably lead to the next step of ensuring the right chair is delivered at the right time for all wheelchair users.”