I went to wheelchair services this morning.
The chair I have is five years old. Although it is regularly maintained it has taken a bit of a hammering during that time and I need a change. The process for getting a new wheelchair should be straightforward. After all, it is a pretty vital piece of equipment. Yet you probably won't be surprised to learn that the whole shebang starts with the completion of the obligatory forms at the local health centre and leads on (around three months later) to the visit I paid today to the Health & Resource Centre. I didn't even know such a place existed until I received my letter inviting me to today's appointment, but there it is in all it's glory opposite the old site of Lowie's nightclub.
I was just about in time for my 9.30 appointment but I was destined to be late all the same. Despite what the letter described as 'ample' parking there were no disabled bays available when I got there. There is a certain irony about someone attending a Health & Resource Centre to be assessed for a new wheelchair and being unable to find a disabled parking space. I had to phone through to let them know that I had arrived and would be with them as soon as I could. Going back to the letter, it had pointed out that should I not attend my appointment they would assume that I no longer had any interest in acquiring a new wheelchair and 'close my file'. Please no, not that. Anything but that. So I wasn't taking any chances.
Following the directions I had been given for the wheelchair services department I was greeted en route by Jeff who, after establishing that I am Mr Orford, led me through to a small room. An open door at the back of the room is emblazoned with the words 'assessment centre'. And that's it. That's wheelchair services. A small room rather like you might find yourself in when visiting your local GP. No sign of any of the admin staff I had spoken to on the phone, just me and Jeff left to thrash out the finer points of the deal.
Not that there looks to be much that is all that fine about this prospective deal. My plan was to simply re-order a brand new version of the chair that I have now. I like the chair that I have now. I looks relatively modern for an NHS chair and is pretty durable. Simple enough. Well no. Jeff, who at this point it must be said is a genuinely personable fellow and seems to be sincerely on the side of the customer, informs me that Lomax, the company which manufactured my current chair, have been bought out and so the model I have is no longer in production. Furthermore, there is now only one model of chair available for free from the NHS and would I like to see one? There is one in the back room. I nod, and Jeff pops into the room behind the 'assessment centre' door and emerges with the chair.
There's no polite way of saying this. It's ugly. Seriously, it's cumbersome and square and awkward looking. It looks like something out of the 1960's. When Jeff tells me that this piece of scrap metal is worth £1,800 I feel slightly queasy. Leaving aside it's aesthetic flaws, it's a piece of metal and a couple of wheels. No more materials than are required for the average push-bike. How can it possibly be worth so much? I knew what was coming next. If I didn't want that one courtesy of the NHS for free (and I didn't) then the alternative was their voucher system whereby they give you a contribution of around £1,000 and you pay the rest yourself for something a little more modern. Since something a little more modern could cost upwards of £2,500 it's going to be expensive and may have to wait a while after all. Regardless, I asked Jeff to send me the information on the voucher system so I could see what exactly is available and what it will cost.
The problem here is that wheelchair users are a captive market. While you may occasionally hear on the radio or television about the government trying to do something about extortionate mobile phone prices or utility bills, it seems they are perfectly happy to let the cost of wheelchairs rise through the stratosphere. After all, only a small percentage of the population need them so why should they care? Credit Jeff again, because he fully understood why I could not just accept the ugly chair because it does the job of getting me from A to B. I spend around 10 hours a day in my wheelchair and if I am not comfortable in it then that is an issue. Ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you that vanity is not one of my flaws, but asking someone to sit in a wheelchair they find embarrassing for 10 hours a day is unacceptable. I'd rather wear a dress all day. Probably. Let's not forget that the wheelchair is pretty much the only thing that some people see in any case. It has to look reasonably attractive. If a wheelchair can ever be described as such.
I shook hands with Jeff on went on my way to work, pondering all of this a little further as I drove. By the time I arrived at about 11.00 all of the disabled parking spaces were taken. We've been here before once already today I thought as I made my way into the main car park. Nothing there either, nothing but the brilliant self-mockery that was to be found in spotting my shoe, the one I left behind in the snow on Friday afternoon, just lazily lying there in the car park. After much pointless deliberation, dithering and numerous attempts to contact Emma I instead parked in a nearby street, but only had enough money for a one hour ticket in the pay and display. I then had to ask my boss if I could just write off the rest of the morning so that I could sort out my parking situation and get some lunch. It was already around 11.20 at this point and I normally take my lunch at 12.00. Kindly she agreed and I eventually found Emma, who moved the car to another car park which saved us the princely sum of £2. It is a staggering £8.80 to park for four hours in the street I had chosen, and £6 for the car park we eventually used. Almost as scandalously expensive as the going rate for wheelchairs..
It may be a while before I take any more time off in the morning to visit wheelchair services.......