Enabling Disabled People

Electrically assisted trike for disabled people

On the one hand, the announcement of the Wheels for All event is great, as it will introduce Brummies to vehicles they didn't know existed, vehicles that help disabled people to get about. It's not the first such event in the UK, as similar events have been held elsewhere already. However, it is most depressing that in this country our aspiration appears to be limiting disabled people to hiring equipment that allows them to peddle around a running track for a short while. Moreover, how are they going to get there? Adapted cars are expensive and require attributes that will exclude many people. In addition to impairments that would render operating something as large and fast as a car dangerous, no-one under the age of 16 can drive a car on the public road, yet this event has a target age range of 11–25. We have built a country in which people are required to drive everywhere, and if you can't drive then you will simply be ignored. That group of people is a significant proportion of the population of Birmingham. According to the Birmingham Mobility Action Plan green paper, "36% of all households in Birmingham do not have access to a car and in some areas of the city this figure is far higher, with well over 50% of households not having access to a car".

Things are rather different just across the North Sea. My first inkling that continental countries try a bit harder not creating barriers for disabled people came when I spotted a plaque at the base of a ramp in Hamburg. It showed how to circumnavigate a flight of steps, and even included the gradient, so someone could decide if they were able to climb the ramp unassisted. Such aids turned out to be ubiquitous. But the real eye-opener was the Netherlands. Cycling around the Netherlands one could easily come to the conclusion that in that country there is an extraordinary number of people with disabilities, because it's normal to encounter disabled people getting about largely unassisted, using a wide variety of vehicles that are notable for not being cars. These vehicles are used on the cycle paths, so they can be used safely despite not having the speed or (heavy) safety features of a car.

Elderly man cycling in the NetherlandsThe simplest form of transport for someone with a disability is the bicycle. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it takes less effort to move about on a bike than by walking, so a bike can be sufficient to tip the balance from immobility to freedom of movement. A bike can of course be modified to meet the needs of the person using it. The simplest modification is a walking stick holder, and these are very common in the Netherlands. The word "disability" has connotations of an abnormality, but we all get old, and many of us will suffer from failing eyesight and stiff joints (so disability is normal, not abnormal). The person in the UK who is condemned to living the rest of their life shuffling around painfully, or being reliant on others, simply as a result of living long enough, can, in the Netherlands use a bike to dramatically increase their range and maintain independence. It's worth adding that the Dutch have been removing bollards from cycle paths precisely because they are a hazard to people with failing eyesight.

Electric scooters and traditional wheelchairs will of course be familiar to British people. Here the former are considered something of a nuisance to pedestrians, because they can move rapidly on a busy footway. That speed is not an issue on a cycle path. British people probably don't even consider wheelchairs as transport, which is hardly surprising given that propelling one using the wheels is laborious. However, in the Netherlands they are fitted with a hand cycle attachment, giving the person using the chair greater speed and range. Of course the attachment may have a battery and motor, turning a hand chair into an electric scooter. This has nothing to do with cycling in the British sense, but that's irrelevant in the Dutch context because their "cycle paths" are in reality part of a light transport network.

Electrically scooter in the NetherlandsIn the Netherlands electric scooters use the same infrastructure as bicycles. This means the people using them don't come into conflict with pedestrians like they do in the UK. Hand cycle attachment in use on a wheelchair in the NetherlandsA hand cycle attachment increases the speed and range of a wheelchair, and allows its user to travel with the chair so it can be used at the destination. It may have electric assist. The cycling infrastructure means the person using it doesn't come into conflict with pedestrians.

Trikes are commonly used as a mobility aid in the Netherlands, as they offer intrinsic stability but offer performance more like a bike. Having an impairment doesn't mean you have (or want) to be slow. It's also possible to add electric assist, or even electric drive, for those who have insufficient strength to provide pedal power. Indeed, a custom-built electrically assisted trike is a standard mobility aid in the Netherlands.

Electrically assisted trikeThis man visiting a physiotherapist in the Netherlands was unable to get from the clinic to his trike without considerable assistance from the woman standing next to him, but once seated his trike gave him freedom of movement. Had he arrived by car, he would have had a greater distance to travel between his car and the clinic, as the car park is in the basement of this shopping precinct. His trike offers him both door-to-door transport and exercise that in itself probably helps to retain joint mobility. Electrically assisted trikeThis is an electrically assisted trike designed specifically to meet the needs of disabled people. Such trikes are ubiquitous in the Netherlands. You can see that whilst a relatively large and fast-moving vehicle like this would be a problem for pedestrians on the footway, it would be extremely vulnerable on the road. Following this man, as I did for some time, it was clear his problems were more than just physical. He was nervous of other people on the path, and he tended to weave from side to side.

Not all disabilities are physical. Some people lack the mental agility required to operate a car safely. Other people require a carer to be with them at all times. Such people could be driven everywhere, and some may appreciate that, but most people want at least some control over their lives. A bicycle provides independent travel for people who can't drive, whilst a tandem allows someone to travel with their carer. This need not be a conventional inline tandem when there is no necessity to cycle on busy roads and hopelessly narrow cycle paths, as once again there is a type of vehicle with which we are not familiar in the UK, the duo bikeDuo bike (side-by-side tandem). This is a side-by-side tandem, which does not require balancing and allows someone to sit next to their carer, as described in an article on Holland Cycling. Tandems in any form also allow someone with a severe visual impairment to benefit physically from cycling, though clearly a duo bike is likely to be less disconcerting as there is no possibility of a sudden lean to one side when the steerer is unable to communicate a warning in time. In the UK duo bikes would be excluded from what cycling infrastructure we do have as a result of paths that are too narrow and which are cluttered with bollards and stymie gates, yet they would no doubt attract the wrath of motorists if used on the carriageway, given the fury vented at (much faster) road cyclists who dare to cycle side-by-side.

For children the equalising effect of modern cycling infrastructure means that even a quite seriously disabled child can travel to school with their friends, who will also be cycling. In general disabled people in the Netherlands are not segregated from their peers and transported in special mini-buses that must inevitably follow a fixed plan, simply because they can get about in much the same way as everyone else.

Negotiating a stymie gate on a trikeOf course there are people in the UK who use cycles as mobility aids, but like all other cyclists they are an out group who are a tiny minority of the population. They face the same cyclophobic attitudes as all other British cyclists, and it requires a sense of humour to deal with getting a trike past the intentional obstacles on cycle paths that block even conventional bikes. And despite having a population in the Greater Birmingham area that is a quarter of the entire population of the Netherlands, you will see nothing like the same numbers of disabled people out and about on their own.

What Can You Do?

If you are in a position of responsibility and able to effect change, then I hope this article will inspire you to make infrastructure in the UK more accessible.

If you are a cyclist with a registered disability, and you find the infrastructure in Birmingham (or anywhere in the UK) obstructive, you can threaten to take your local council to court for breaching the Equalities Act. This act trumps all others, and it is likely the council will not defend itself against your challenge. The act has already been used in this way to get one stymie gate removed in Birmingham.

Any cyclist can of course contact their member of parliament (and during elections, candidates), to ask them what they will do to create an environment in which not owning a car isn't a disability.

The more people who do these things, the faster will Britain become egalitarian.

This article has been reproduced with permission on streets.mn.