The spinal cord injury charity, Back Up, has recently commissioned research into how people choose, use and fund their wheelchair. The research has highlighted some worrying findings showing how difficult it can be to acquire an appropriate wheelchair for your needs, Back Up stated:

“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.”

Back Up surveyed 540 people who have a spinal cord injury or a physical disability, and identified as full-time or part-time wheelchair users. The key findings are summed up below:

1.    The First Wheelchair

  • Usually, a first wheelchair is provided by NHS wheelchair services. They offer a chair or a budget – which used to be called the voucher scheme – towards the cost of a chair of the user’s choosing. Making the right choice can be challenging at this stage, when people have limited knowledge of what they might need.
  • As it turns out, there are a vast number of factors to be considered: weight, comfort, size, durability and adjustability all play a huge bearing on getting the right wheelchair.
  • Support at this stage is therefore crucial. However, it is also variable: 24% of respondents stated that they bought a second wheelchair because their first one was uncomfortable.
  • Finding a chair that can adjust as your needs change is vital.  People need adjustable wheelchairs to enable independence and to prevent long-term injuries like shoulder problems.  However, 50% of those surveyed told us they bought a second wheelchair because of changing personal needs. This suggests that the current system is not addressing the issue.
  • 48% stated that they only got a wheelchair they were happy with after one year, and 7% remain who have never been happy with their chair. 

2.    Try Before You Buy

  • The consensus was that you should try out a prospective chair several times in different environments, and you should always make sure that it’s practical.
  • 72% of respondents said they trust other wheelchair users’ opinions when choosing a new chair.
  • Other trusted sources include physiotherapists and occupational therapists, with wheelchair services the fifth most trusted source of expertise followed by sales representatives.
  • This suggests that professional support available to get a wheelchair can be of a variable quality. Many did report receiving excellent support from NHS professionals and peers, but not from other sources.
  • 68% also recommended doing online research, particularly of wheelchair manufacturers’ websites.

3.    Financing Your Wheelchair

We asked people how they funded their wheelchair and to select all that apply if it was funded by more than one option. 

Paid for it myself 39%
Paid for by friends / family 8%
Grant from a charity 7%
Wheelchair voucher scheme 26%
Access to work 8%
Finance scheme 1%
Motability 1%
Free option from Wheelchair Services 37%
Other 12%
  • 39% of respondents paid for their wheelchair themselves, some people using a mixture of funding streams. We do not know how respondents funded that payment for their wheelchair i.e whether respondents fully or partially funded the wheelchair, or if they received a voucher and what that voucher was worth. However, this suggests that the voucher was, in general, not enough to cover the cost of a wheelchair that allows someone to lead a full and active life.
  • Aspire, our partner spinal cord injury charity, provides grants for a range of disability equipment. Last year, 70% of all the grants they provided were for wheelchairs and mobility equipment. Of the people who had a NHS wheelchair voucher and applied to their grants programme, the average difference between the voucher and the wheelchair needed was just shy of £3,000.
  • 50% of respondents stated their wheelchair cost up to £4,000, and 10% up to £6,000.
  • 6% of respondents stated their wheelchair cost less than £1,000.
  • Many report that disability equipment is very expensive, placing them in a difficult position: you can choose an affordable wheelchair, that may not meet your needs, or pay a vast sum to get the chair that gives you the best quality of life.
  • At Back Up, we believe that with the right wheelchair, people can build on the skills they have learnt, increase their confidence and independence, and lead active and full lives.

4.    Wheelchair Training

  • 95% of respondents agreed that wheelchair training was essential.
  • But 33% – who did not specify what level of specialist care they had received, if any, following their illness or injury – had received no training in how to use a wheelchair.
  • People who did receive training attended sessions run by other wheelchair users, such as Back Up’s wheelchair skills sessions in spinal units throughout the UK. These sessions are for both manual and power chair users.
  • However, 75% of respondents did state that they are using their current wheelchair to its full potential.

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