Blurred shot of a manual wheelchair moving towards the left of the camera down a corridor.

The vast majority of powered wheelchairs and mobility scooters have a maximum speed of approximately 5 mph (8 kmph), which is the equivalent of a brisk walk. Despite this completely reasonable rate of travel, I frequently have total strangers comment unprompted on my pace while out and about, and I know that I am not the only powered wheelchair user to experience this. While usually said in a jovial tone, the joke has begun to wear thin. I highly doubt fast walkers receive the same treatment.

While most mobility aids allow disabled people to match the speed of our able-bodied brethren, there are some mobility scooters which can reach speeds of 15 mph. If someone were to take one of these at top speed among pedestrians (I have seen it done), commenting on speed would absolutely be warranted. It is for this reason that these scooters usually need to be declared as road worthy in the UK, and owners are encouraged to take driving classes. It has been suggested that all powered wheelchair and scooter users take classes, but I strongly object to the notion that people like myself should have to be trained to be able to leave our homes when able-bodied people wander aimlessly across my path or stop in the middle of the street, usually while gazing at their phone. Mandatory classes would also raise issues for those who borrow mobility aids while out, and the question as to whether manual wheelchair users would be subject to the same scrutiny remains unanswered, but I digress.

The fact of the matter is that most people prefer the smaller, lighter, more maneuverable and often cheaper mobility aids that are capped at the speed of a brisk walk. It’s also worth noting that, much like cars, wheelchairs need to be subject to certain conditions in order to reach their top speed; driven in a straight line on a smooth, level floor with weight minimized. Most of the time, that speed will not be reached. Indeed, when participating in a university experiment on mobility aids in which my wheelchair’s top speed was measured (seriously, university is a strange place), it struggled to achieve anything above 4.5 mph.

It would also be highly unusual to drive at top speed all the time. Speed can be controlled by both a setting from 1 – 5 on the control panel, or by the extent to which I push the joystick forwards. Even on those occasions when I’m on the top speed setting of 5, I may well not be going full pace. It is only on wide, empty paths that I dare to do this, and I will always slow down for those around me as needed. I am not unreasonable.

That said, some will still query why I prefer to travel at the pace of someone walking briskly, rather than the average walking speed, and the answer is simple; inaccessibility.

I spend much of my time in my wheelchair taking detours to account for dropped curbs, ramps, lifts, or blocked pathways. While each detour is small, they add up to a significant amount distance. If I were to travel at the average walking speed all of the time, I would take far longer to reach anywhere. On multiple occasions I have diverted from behind exceptionally slow walkers (not even those going at an average speed), and by the time I’ve made it around the accessible detour and rejoined the standard path, I fall into place behind them. I fail to see why I should sacrifice my time and energy to satisfy the fragile masculinity (because it is always men who make these comments) of those who apparently feel threatened by my pace.

So the next time you feel the urge to make this “joke”, perhaps re-consider. Or I’ll re-consider slowing down while I move past you.

One thought on “Velocity.

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