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Ouch Q&A: Wheelchairs

by Sunil Peck

19th April 2006

Ouch tells you everything you ever wanted to know about wheelchairs, but were afraid to ask ...

Q: Apart from Andy in <i>Little Britain</i> and Peter Kay in <i>Phoenix Nights</i>, how many wheelchair users are there in the UK?

A: Around 1.2 million, according to the Department of Health in 2004.

Q: How many years have wheelchairs been around?

A: Believe it or not, a lot more than a thousand years! In fact, the earliest representation of a wheelchair dates back to sixth century China. It's an engraving of a man sitting in a chair with three wheels on it.
Andy in 'Little Britain', played by Matt Lucas

Q: Did disabled people wheel themselves around back then?

A: No, they didn't. They continued to rely on able-bodied people to cart them from A to B for over a thousand more years. Then one day in the mid-seventeenth century, a paraplegic watchmaker named Stephen Farfler built a wheelchair with hand cranks on the front wheel, which he used to propel it along. It appears that Farfler's new device resembled a box on wheels rather than a conventional wheelchair, but it was a breakthrough in the evolution of the wheelchair because it meant that the user no longer had to rely on a helper to push them around.
Close-up image of a wheelchair wheel

Q: So presumably Farfler's wheelchair-cum-box-on-wheels was a big hit with disabled people?

A: I've yet to read any reports on the impact of Farfler's technological breakthrough, but I can't imagine many disabled people getting too excited about it at the time. The choice would have been simple: kick back while the seventeenth century equivalent of a PA pushed you around, or build your own wooden wheelchair which would have been heavy, unwieldy and uncomfortable to operate.
Close-up image of a manual wheelchair

Q: So when did manual wheelchairs become an attractive option?

A: If you survived the First World War, you would have been in luck. By then, wheelchairs had large lighter wheels made of metal, with push rims to make it easier to propel yourself without getting your hands filthy. Plus, you would have been able to move your seat back and move your foot and arm rests.

Q: Is it true that only people in wheelchairs used to compete in the Paralympics?

A: Until 1972, yes. In 1948, Ludwig Guttman staged a competition at Stoke Mandeville to coincide with the London Olympics, as part of a rehab program. A neurologist, he had been treating British war veterans with spinal injuries, and saw sport as key to restoring their physical strength and self-esteem.
A wheelchair sportsman competing in a road race

Q: Is there a link between the number of people who took up sports like wheelchair racing, tennis, rugby and basketball, and the development of the highly specialised lightweight chairs we're used to seeing nowadays?

A: Absolutely. The bulky wheelchairs of the '70s weren't designed for speed or agility, and were unsuitable to satisfy the demands of wheelchair athletes. Companies began manufacturing lighter, sturdier and sleek models which were snapped up by non-athletic wheelchair types.

Q: What will future wheelchairs be like?

A: A number of new wheelchairs were exhibited at The Mobility Roadshow last year, but my favourite by far is the iBOT. It goes up and down stairs and over bumpy ground. Best of all though, it lifts up. This allows the user, for instance, to grab items from high shelves in the supermarket.
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