David Mackintosh: ‘There is a very real need for short-term wheelchair loans’

Conservative MP, David Mackintosh, calls for the Government to provide a comprehensive assessment across England to measure the ‘real need’ of short term wheelchair loans.

David Mackintosh Red Cross visit

If you twist your ankle or get a small injury, hospitals have to provide you with a ‘minor aid’ – such as crutches or a walking frame. Similarly, if you have a serious illness or injury that will mean long-term loss of mobility, hospitals are obliged to provide a wheelchair or any other equipment you need. But if you need a wheelchair for less than six months, then in the large majority of areas you won’t be given one.

There are a lot of good reasons why someone might need to borrow a wheelchair for less than six months: a broken leg or ankle, recovery from an operation, or a terminal illness. Despite this, short-term provision is largely a blind spot for statutory authorities. Every year, thousands of people find themselves in just such a situation, only to discover their local hospital can’t give them the equipment they need.

The British Red Cross responds to this unmet humanitarian need by loaning 83,000 wheelchairs each year. I recently visited my local branch of the Red Cross’s mobility aids service to see at first hand the work it does in the community.

Many of us are used to seeing the Red Cross at work in disasters and conflict zones overseas, and recognise it as an organisation which helps some of the most vulnerable members of society. It was an eye-opening to see for myself the good work they do in our community, but it was especially surprising to learn how difficult it can be for people get a wheelchair when they need one.

I was encouraged to visit after receiving a copy of the Red Cross’s research report Putting the Wheels in Motion, which shares the stories of a number people who have borrowed a wheelchair from the organisation.

Ron’s story is particularly topical. The World War Two veteran desperately wanted to join last year’s 70th anniversary Armistice parade in central London. It was a final chance for Ron to remember his fallen comrades as the Normandy Veterans Association was due to disband.

It was unthinkable that he should miss out, but shortly before the event, Ron was hospitalised. For a while it looked like he would miss the parade, but he rallied in time and borrowing a Red Cross wheelchair meant he could attend after all. “I couldn’t have done it without the chair – it was an opportunity not be missed”, said Ron. The service made a huge difference to Ron’s family too. In the words of his daughter Pam, “It would have been heart-breaking not to be able to take him…we couldn’t have considered it without the wheelchair”.

Ashleigh’s story also stands out – without a wheelchair loan her entry into paid employment would have been delayed by a full year. After a gruelling operation, the trainee nurse was told she faced seven weeks in plaster with just a pair of crutches for support. She immediately knew what that meant: having to postpone and re-sit her final year of nursing qualifications the following academic year. Ashleigh was devastated by the news. Fortunately a neighbour mentioned the Red Cross service. She recalls: “Without the wheelchair, my partner would have needed more time off work to care for me, so we’d have been crippled financially.”

Short-term wheelchair loans can change people’s lives. This is why I am supporting the Red Cross in advocating to make wheelchairs accessible to all – not just those with long term needs. Everyone who needs a wheelchair should be able to quickly and easily get one that’s right for them, for as long as they need it.

At the moment, to be honest, no-one is truly aware of the real need out there – the Red Cross can only meet the need of so many. That is why the Red Cross are calling on the government to provide a comprehensive assessment across England.

I for one, join them in this ask. Only once we know the true nature of this hidden issue will we truly know what our response should be.

Until then we know that many people will be left without the help they need in a time of crisis.