Have you ever looked at the front of a wheelchair; no? I am not surprised, unless you use one or have a relative in one, why should you? So next time you see a wheelchair out and about, take a look. I am going to get in so much trouble now. People are going to be staring at wheelchair users’ legs and feet. That could be most inappropriate if the user is a young lady and the person staring a man. So, use discretion, I am not suggestion anything untoward here, just an observation of a simple fact: Wheelchairs are designed in a very odd way.
I am not sure whether a wheelchair users’ feet are seen as less important than a wheelchair or it is just thought that a lot of wheelchair users have no feeling in their feet. Either way our feet are the bumpers on wheelchairs! That is what you will notice just before you are arrested for inappropriately staring at wheelchair users’ legs. I pointed this out to the wheelchair OT at my latest assessment, our feet being bumpers, not about staring at people’s legs. He seemed to miss my point about my feet being at risk and talked about the damage done to the wheelchair leg rests. Apparently, they bear the brunt of impacts and are not up to the job. Mind you my toes were not really built for impact either. Obviously, I do care about the damage done to my wheelchair, but call me selfish if you want, I rather value my toes. I have quite a large power wheelchair and it can drive my feet very heavily into a wall or door if I am not careful. I do try very hard to be careful. But there are occasions when a tight corner or an unseen bit of furniture surprises my toes; and me. It is not a pleasant surprise.
We once travelled in a taxi supplied by the train company when the trains were cancelled. They booked a taxi that was too small for my large power chair. I could see that fact immediately and pointed it out. But who am I? Just a wheelchair user. So, the taxi driver overrode my objections and tried to cram my chair into his cab; insisting it would fit. My feet were telling me it did not fit and it took a lot of argument before he accepted that I could not go any further forward and that my feet were already crushed against the seating. Still the OT would have been pleased, the leg rests never touched the seats and so were undamaged. I wish my toes could have shared in their rejoicing.
I asked the OT why wheelchairs do not have a guard around the users’ feet. His answer was more focussed around the weakness of the leg rests rather than protection of the user’s feet. To be fair to him, I think he was trying to say that the leg rests are not a strong part of the chair anyway so you cannot use a guard around them to protect the user’s feet. For my part I would use a car analogy. Passengers in a car are protected by a crumple zone. In the case of an accident it is considered acceptable to sacrifice part of the car to protect the occupants. It seems human beings; if they are car passengers or drivers, are highly valuable. Whereas, judging purely on experience and observation, wheelchair users are not as valuable in the eyes of manufacturers or the legislators who decide the specifications of wheelchairs. Perhaps a few of the people deciding on the safety issues of wheelchairs need to try out a few days in a wheelchair?
Isn’t it time that this changed? Are we as wheelchair users less important of protection than car users? I have highlighted our feet, but wheelchairs are not fitted with proper restraints as standard, nor is there a national standard for their safe transport in cars, taxi’s, trains, coaches and buses. Each wheelchair has its own position and type of fixing point. Likewise, the restraints used in the different forms of transport vary greatly in type and safety.
Perhaps we are seen as a silent minority or an unimportant part of society. Maybe some see us as inconvenience or a drain on resource already. In these difficult times perhaps, there would be many who would question raising any issues that would cost anything to fix. But I would answer this; should we wait for a convenient time before highlighting a potential danger? When is a good time to say that something is unsafe, unfair and needs urgent attention? Now has to be that time. Anyone who has experienced these issues first-hand will understand. If you don’t understand try spending some time in a wheelchair, especially a powerchair. Negotiate tight doorways and corridors. Travel in taxis (smaller ones not the big vans, they are rare) and on buses (that is an interesting experience in a powerchair). As for trains, they are an area all of their own. Even have a trip down the high street and into shops. When you realise that your feet are the first thing that will impact whatever is ahead of you then your perspective will change.
I will end with one last thing to point out about all this. I wear slippers most of the time, even out and about in my wheelchair. That’s because my feet swell, and shoes are extremely uncomfortable. Plus, shoes are not exactly necessary as I cannot walk or stand. I understand that slippers make my feet even more vulnerable, but this is very common for permanent wheelchair users. Those of us who cannot stand up. In fact, I know of many wheelchair users who wear just socks or a kind of flip-flop. So, don’t assume that footwear could be the answer to good protection. Suggesting that a hardened shoe would do the trick just wouldn’t work. Apart from sizing, comfort, and shape there is the issue of the whole foot being attached to your ankle. When an impact occurs, the whole foot is pushed back. A large shoe would just stick out more an exacerbate that effect.
The only answer that would work is to fully protect the user’s feet with a bumper that is not our toes. If each leg plate had a protective strip around the front that would bear the impact. It is true that the leg rest might break in a bad impact, better that than the user’s toes. The leg rests would act like a wheelchair crumple zone. At worst, the whole of a user’s leg would be pushed back a little under the chair. But our toes and feet would be safe. I for one like that idea a lot.
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