Mobility aids should be free.
At first this simple statement seems bold and even ridiculous, but upon further exploration the logic and morality of this idea become clear.
The relationship between a disabled person and their accessibility aids is often assumed to be a negative one, centring around resentment towards needing additional gear to be able to perform ordinary tasks. While feeling resentment is a pretty standard reaction when first learning to rely on an accessibility aid, most disabled people grow to genuinely love the equipment that enables them. While the sentiment applies to other items as well, the phrase “wheelchairs are freedom” succinctly explains why disabled people love their accessibility aids; without this precious equipment, we struggle to navigate daily life and become restricted in what we can do and where we can go. While even the best wheelchair in the world cannot bypass ableism and inaccessibility, being able to use one is certainly preferable to being trapped in your own home.
Following the lockdowns during the early stages of the still ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, some people might think they know what it’s like to be trapped indoors all day. However, even during the tightest of restrictions, going outdoors for a few minutes a day was encouraged, and over-all the lockdowns lasted less than a year. Without the necessary mobility aids, some people have been trapped in their homes for years, if not decades, unable to even go outside for a few brief moments. Access to sunlight and fresh air is mandated in prisons (as it should be) due to their importance to mental and physical wellbeing, but the same courtesy is not extended to disabled people if they don’t have a mobility aid.
Once the significance of having a mobility aid is understood, you might assume that obtaining one would be as easy as purchasing food and water (although in the current climate, even these basic commodities are out of reach for some). Many even labour under the impression that mobility aids can be got for free from the NHS, specialist services, or via benefit schemes, and are shocked to learn that many people spend into the thousands to obtain them. After all, our taxes are supposed to be used to fund the systems that support disadvantaged groups such as disabled people.
While it is theoretically possible to get a wheelchair on the NHS, I have never managed this, and speaking to the few that have reveals an ugly truth; that the mobility aid comes with strings attached. First, a stranger must quickly assess whether you need a wheelchair, and if your legs can so much as twitch, you will almost certainly be deemed capable of living without one. If it is decided that a wheelchair is needed the options are severely limited, lacking important features such as having a lightweight frame, being able to fold up for transport, having the ability to rise and tilt, or having a decent battery life. Similarly, at any time a stranger may decide that you no longer need a wheelchair, taking your mobility aid away again.
There is a scheme lead by the Department for Work and Pensions that essentially allows you to rent a powered wheelchair, this cost being deducted from benefit payments (which, if you did for long enough, would eventually result in you paying more than the cost of buying a wheelchair outright). However, if the benefit is within six months of running out, you cannot renew this scheme until your payments have been reviewed. This means that you could easily be left without a mobility aid while more strangers assess whether your leg twitched or not, especially if an appeal is required. Furthermore, the wheelchairs available on this scheme are only marginally better than those on the NHS, and the businesses contracted to provide the wheelchairs often seem to resent the customers using this scheme, if the difference in the way I was treated before and after I joined this scheme is anything to go by.
In a decade of using a wheelchair, I have spent in the vicinity of £7,000 on mobility aids, and given that I didn’t need to pay VAT, got some second-hand, and I do not need costly adaptations or special features, this figure is actually a lot lower than it is for many other wheelchair users. I honestly think a lot of disabled people would be willing to spend some money on mobility aids if they were able to, but the inflated prices of these essential items is extortionate, often forcing people to choose between freedom and food. For many disabled people, freedom has a very literal price.
In conclusion, if you’re an able-bodied person who still thinks that the idea of free mobility aids is preposterous, then I have to ask; when was the last time you paid to cross the threshold of your home?