Problems with unsuitable wheelchairs and maintenance delays are adding to difficulties faced by users in accessing education, work and everyday life, a researcher has said.

A survey of almost 300 wheelchair users, or their parents, showed over one-third discovered the wheelchair did not meet their needs. But only one-in-six were given any follow-up to check on the suitability within six months of receiving new wheelchairs, often after long delays getting them in the first place.

Rosie Gowran, a lecturer in occupational therapy at University of Limerick, said her research reveals factors that compound the lack of uniformity in wheelchair provision around Ireland. Dr Gowran presented results yesterday to senator John Dolan, chief executive of the Disability Federation of Ireland, and other Seanad members.

Among those accompanying her was 11-year-old Sean Byrnes, who was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus. As a wheelchair user since birth, he considers it as his best friend.

“We go everywhere together, to school, physio, shopping, we take part in sports and social events together. My wheelchair is my legs, without it I could not get around myself,” he said in a written testimonial.

He likes to be independent at school but said his wheelchair has to be in perfect working order at all times.

“In the past I’ve had punctures or tyres blow out. This is like falling and injuring your leg,” he said. “This has an immediate effect on me, my mobility is gone, it’s scary.”

His parents, Fiona and John, have to buy spare parts independently, ready for such events, as people otherwise have to wait for a malfunction before applying for spare wheels, tyres, or tubes.

Meanwhile, Eileen Daly, chairwoman of Greater Dublin Independent Living, enjoys a very active lifestyle, juggling two part-time jobs, going to gigs, dining out, and being a disability, equality, and human rights activist. But when her chair broke down earlier this year, she waited 10 weeks for a part to be delivered, and had to take time off work due to the effects on her physical health, but her emotional wellbeing was also impacted.

“Without my chair, I cannot move, so my life stops,” she said. “I become a prisoner in my home, I’m unable to work, to do errands and meet friends.”

Dr Gowran said ensuring people get what they need on time requires the Government to set up a national taskforce to review services.

“You wouldn’t wait 10 weeks for a part for your car,” she said. “People talk about accessibility environments, this is about access to appropriate wheelchairs that meet people’s needs.”

She said the waiting times for assessments, order, and delivery of wheelchairs vary widely depending on the complexity of people’s needs.

“But we should at least have national guidelines as to how long people should not wait.”


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