Toddling Wheels

From the moment she could crawl my niece Bean has been obsessed with my wheelchair, crawling all over it and using the wheels to pull herself up.

From the very beginning Fat Sister and King Russell have been very clear with her that it’s not a toy and that she has to ask before she climbs in. In fact her first sign was ‘please’ so that she could ask for the chair.

She’s now just over eighteen months and she’s as into the wheelchair as ever. She’ll sometimes mimic it in her play too, putting her teddies on her potty and pushing them around.

She’s confident in the chair and can get in and out by herself, and she loves doing up and undoing the seatbelt buckle. She knows the chair moves and will often sit on my lap while I shunt us about.

Last week, though, there was a development. She was in the chair and desperately trying to make it move by herself. Stopping her doing this seemed pointless, so instead I thought I’d try and teach her how it worked properly. I showed her the brakes and how they worked, and then where to put your hands on the push rims and how you push to make the chair move.

She got the hang of it instantly and a week later she’s confidently moving and steering herself – obviously with very close supervision and with the anti-tips on. I was struck by how well she could move a chair that was so much bigger than she is.

I’m not writing this to show off how clever Bean is, but because it got me thinking about the importance of independent mobility for disabled toddlers.

Many NHS wheelchair services won’t provide very young children with wheelchairs. They may provide an adapted buggy, but from a quick look at the criteria available online it seems that many services wait until children are over five, and even when they’ve reached that age the range of equipment is often limited.

Watching Bean as she grows has made me keenly aware of the importance of mobility to a child’s learning and development. Being a toddler is all about exploring and making discoveries, and without safe ways to move about, both in and outdoors, many disabled children are missing out.

There are some great charities like Whizz Kids and Meru who are plugging this gap and providing power chairs like the Bugzi and Whizzybug for disabled pre-schoolers, but should we be leaving the development of disabled children to chance and charity?

And it’s not just children – earlier this year disabled journalist Frances Ryan wrote about the increasing number of disabled people turning to charity and to crowd funding platforms to fund wheelchairs. She wrote:

“Whether one of the richest nations in the world can provide disabled people with a safe and suitable wheelchair goes to the very centre of questions about our ever-disintegrating social contract… when as a society we can’t even take care of disabled children, we surely have a problem.”

Watching Bean pootle about the castle in my massive wheelchair made me think of all the children for whom this isn’t just a fun activity, but who should be pootling about learning, laughing and making childhood memories.

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