Enabling the Disabled: A View From the UK

I have been asked a few times why I so frequently mention disabled folk in the same breath as bicycle folk. It’s quite simple. I’ve seen how difficult getting about is for people with disabilities in the U.S. and how well they and bicycle folk share Dutch bikeways. Actually, I get exceptionally frustrated seeing how poorly we provide for folks with disabilities (and elderly) when I know how much better it can be.

I’ve often noted that The Netherlands seems like a giant old folks home or that they seem to have a lot more people with disabilities than anywhere else. Neither of these are actually true though. They actually have fewer people with disabilities than the U.S. However, the elderly and people with disabilities are more able to get out and about in The Netherlands. They are not limited to their home.

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Motorized wheelchair user in bike lane in the Netherlands

Folks with disabilities and folks with bicycles are quite similar in speed, mass, and the attributes of their vehicles — key elements of The Netherland’s successful Sustainable Safety initiative. Differences in these create conflict while similarity allows for comfortable cooperation. Rather than conflict with slower pedestrians or faster and more dangerous cars, people with disabilities in The Netherlands operate comfortably among similar folk — bicycle riders.

According to the American Community Survey, approximately 12% of Americans and 10% of Minnesotans have a disability. An estimated 80% of these are significantly hindered with regard to transportation and in getting physical activity. While physical activity is critical for all of our mental and physical health, it is perhaps more critical for disabled and elderly since it works so well to stave off a long list of problems such as failed joints and Alzheimers.

I recently received an email from someone I know through Hembrow Study Tours wanting to use one of my photos for an article he was doing on disabled in The Netherlands. Rather than reinvent the wheel here is an excerpt from his excellent post “Enabling Disabled People” on written for pushbikes.org.uk which advocates for cycling infrastructure in Birmingham, England’s second city (The full article is here).

From “Enabling Disabled People”

Elderly01The simplest form of transport for someone with a disability is the bicycle. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it takes less effort to move about on a bike than by walking, so a bike can be sufficient to tip the balance from immobility to freedom of movement. A bike can of course be modified to meet the needs of the person using it. The simplest modification is a walking stick holder, and these are very common in the Netherlands. The word “disability” has connotations of an abnormality, but we all get old, and many of us will suffer from failing eyesight and stiff joints (so disability is normal, not abnormal). The person in the UK who is condemned to living the rest of their life shuffling around painfully, or being reliant on others, simply as a result of living long enough, can, in the Netherlands use a bike to dramatically increase their range and maintain independence. It’s worth adding that the Dutch have been removing bollards from cycle paths precisely because they are a hazard to people with failing eyesight

Electric scooters and traditional wheelchairs will of course be familiar to British people. Here the former are considered something of a nuisance to pedestrians, because they can move rapidly on a busy footway. That speed is not an issue on a cycle path. British people probably don’t even consider wheelchairs as transport, which is hardly surprising given that propelling one using the wheels is laborious. However, in the Netherlands they are fitted with a hand cycle attachment, giving the person using the chair greater speed and range. Of course the attachment may have a battery and motor, turning a hand chair into an electric scooter. This has nothing to do with cycling in the British sense, but that’s irrelevant in the Dutch context because their “cycle paths” are in reality part of a light transport network.

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In the Netherlands electric scooters use the same infrastructure as bicycles. This means the people using them don’t come into conflict with pedestrians like they do in the UK.

A hand cycle attachment increases the speed and range of a wheelchair, and allows its user to travel with the chair so it can be used at the destination. It may have electric assist. The cycling infrastructure means the person using it doesn't come into conflict with pedestrians.

A hand cycle attachment increases the speed and range of a wheelchair, and allows its user to travel with the chair so it can be used at the destination. It may have electric assist. The cycling infrastructure means the person using it doesn’t come into conflict with pedestrians.

Trikes are commonly used as a mobility aid in the Netherlands, as they offer intrinsic stability but offer performance more like a bike. Having an impairment doesn’t mean you have (or want) to be slow. It’s also possible to add electric assist, or even electric drive, for those who have insufficient strength to provide pedal power. Indeed, a custom-built electrically assisted trike is a standard mobility aid in the Netherlands.

This man visiting a physiotherapist in the Netherlands was unable to get from the clinic to his trike without considerable assistance from the woman standing next to him, but once seated his trike gave him freedom of movement. Had he arrived by car, he would have had a greater distance to travel between his car and the clinic, as the car park is in the basement of this shopping precinct. His trike offers him both door-to-door transport and exercise that in itself probably helps to retain joint mobility.

This man visiting a physiotherapist in the Netherlands was unable to get from the clinic to his trike without considerable assistance from the woman standing next to him, but once seated his trike gave him freedom of movement. Had he arrived by car, he would have had a greater distance to travel between his car and the clinic, as the car park is in the basement of this shopping precinct. His trike offers him both door-to-door transport and exercise that in itself probably helps to retain joint mobility.

This is an electrically assisted trike designed specifically to meet the needs of disabled people. Such trikes are ubiquitous in the Netherlands. You can see that whilst a relatively large and fast-moving vehicle like this would be a problem for pedestrians on the footway, it would be extremely vulnerable on the road. Following this man, as I did for some time, it was clear his problems were more than just physical. He was nervous of other people on the path, and he tended to weave from side to side.

This is an electrically assisted trike designed specifically to meet the needs of disabled people. Such trikes are ubiquitous in the Netherlands. You can see that whilst a relatively large and fast-moving vehicle like this would be a problem for pedestrians on the footway, it would be extremely vulnerable on the road. Following this man, as I did for some time, it was clear his problems were more than just physical. He was nervous of other people on the path, and he tended to weave from side to side.

Not all disabilities are physical. Some people lack the mental agility required to operate a car safely. Other people require a carer to be with them at all times. Such people could be driven everywhere, and some may appreciate that, but most people want at least some control over their lives. A bicycle provides independent travel for people who can’t drive, whilst a tandem allows someone to travel with their carer. This need not be a conventional inline tandem when there is no necessity to cycle on busy roads and hopelessly narrow cycle paths, as once again there is a type of vehicle with which we are not familiar in the UK, the duo bike.

A duo bike is a side-by-side tandem, which does not require balancing and allows someone to sit next to their carer, as described in an article on Holland Cycling. Tandems in any form also allow someone with a severe visual impairment to benefit physically from cycling, though clearly a duo bike is likely to be less disconcerting as there is no possibility of a sudden lean to one side when the steerer is unable to communicate a warning in time. In the UK duo bikes would be excluded from what cycling infrastructure we do have as a result of paths that are too narrow and which are cluttered with bollards and stymie gates, yet they would no doubt attract the wrath of motorists if used on the carriageway, given the fury vented at (much faster) road cyclists who dare to cycle side-by-side.

For children the equalising effect of modern cycling infrastructure means that even a quite seriously disabled child can travel to school with their friends, who will also be cycling. In general disabled people in the Netherlands are not segregated from their peers and transported in special mini-buses that must inevitably follow a fixed plan, simply because they can get about in much the same way as everyone else.

Of course there are people in the UK who use cycles as mobility aids, but like all other cyclists they are an out group who are a tiny minority of the population. They face the same cyclophobic attitudes as all other British cyclists, and it requires a sense of humour to deal with getting a trike past the intentional obstacles on cycle paths that block even conventional bikes. And despite having a population in the Greater Birmingham area that is a quarter of the entire population of the Netherlands, you will see nothing like the same numbers of disabled people out and about on their own.

Low step bikes are quite common in The Netherlands. It was fascinating watching people who had difficulty walking hop on one of these and ride off. Dr. Jon Rogers, a physician who I was with, explained that while it might be difficult to life their leg over a normal step-thru that the pedals will lift their leg to the top of the stroke and then they will be able to push down.

Low step bikes are quite common in The Netherlands. It was fascinating watching people who had difficulty walking hop on one of these and ride off. Dr. Jon Rogers, a physician who I was with, explained that while it might be difficult to lift their leg over a normal step-thru once on this bike the pedals will lift their leg to the top of the stroke and then they will be able to push down.


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