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Mobility scooters are very popular today – and they can
transform the lives of people with disabilities. But their
rising popularity is creating A strong demand all over the
The Guardian, Wednesday 2 Sep 2013
Chelsea pensioners line up on their mobility scooters for
the founder's day parade at the Royal Hospital in
SportRider tends to be bought by people who were fond of
motorbikes in their youth, and many of its owners know it
affectionately as the Harley, because its high silver
handlebars supported by chrome springs are immediately
reminiscent of the brand. It's a Hell's Angels look for
people with limited mobility.
This is boom time for the mobility vehicle industry. The
SportRider is one of hundreds of vehicles on display at
the annual show of mobility scooters. – a mini automobile
trade show (but with medical mannequins instead of models in
bikinis). Over the past decade, the stigma around these
vehicles has eroded, and they are increasingly popular with
younger people. Manufacturers are responding by trying to
take the product away from its staid, slightly mournful
medicalised roots and promoting it as a fashionable
Some of the new brand names are startling. There is the
Vegas scooter, displayed spinning on a rotating roulette
board; the brochure explains it's a lightweight model
capable of carrying a driver up to a maximum weight of 21st,
with a top speed of 4mph.
These vehicles have transformed life for millions of people
with disabilities. Shaun Greenhalgh, 56, from Wigan, has had
difficulty walking since he slipped and ended up with
several prolapsed discs when he was in his early 30s. He has
been using a scooter for 24 years and now owns four. "Like
most scooter users, I can walk to some degree, but only with
pain and discomfort," he says, as he examines the models on
display at the exhibition. "Without it, I would have no
life. They might as well have put me down."
But as they have become more popular, mobility scooters have
become more controversial. Although the main growth in the
market is the consequence of an ageing population, there is
evidence that people with no disabilities are beginning to
buy the scooters on the secondhand market (where they can
cost as little as $100) because, with no tax, license or
insurance requirements, they provide a cheap alternative to
cars for getting around town, particularly at a time of
rising petrol prices.
There has been a marked change in the way people use them. A
decade ago these were products used only by very frail
people; now manufacturers are designing new models with
bench seats capable of carrying people up to 500 lbs. "It's
a cultural issue. People are larger and, dare I say it,
lazier," an industry spokesman says (before deciding that he
doesn't dare say it, and asking for his name not to be put
to the quote). "People are using them as a mode of transport
rather than public transport or a car."
While users describe how these products have transformed
their lives, offering new independence and liberating them
from the need to be pushed around, the scooter's increasing
presence – clogging pavements and traffic lanes – has
prompted rising hostility.
They remain classified as medical devices and the law states
that this kind of vehicle should be driven only by someone
"suffering from some physical defect or physical disability"
– but there's no clear definition of what that means, and
the disability can be temporary or permanent. Whereas
wheelchair users tend to be unable to walk, scooter users
often can, but with difficulty. The anti-mobility scooter
lobby is confused by the vision of people stepping off their
vehicle and walking into a shop. The sense that some people
are using them for convenience is stoking the hostility, and
legitimate users say the public are vocal in their
criticisms. Twitter is full of people complaining that users
don't seem to be "disabled enough". "Mobility scooter users
are aggressive sociopaths," is a typical tweet.
Toni Orchard, 39, travelled from Swindon to visit the
exhibition to research the best model to buy, because she
thinks a mobility scooter will improve her quality of life.
She has had trouble walking long distances for the past 10
years because of her obesity, which she says has become more
severe as she has got older, despite her concerted efforts
to tackle it, including a gastric band.
"If I had one I would do more days out; I could go and see
places rather than being put off by the amount of walking,"
she says. "I can't walk long distances without pain. I can't
do more than go around the block to the shops. It would be
great to be able to go out without worrying about which
places have seats that I can rest on."
She is considering the Pride Gogo Elite Traveller or the
Vegas, which is the smallest one available that will both
take her weight and can be dismantled to fit in the boot of
the car, but isn't sure yet that she can face down the
simmering disapproval of pedestrians. She has rented
scooters in the past when she visited Disneyworld in
Florida, with her husband. "In the US there is no stigma at
all. But I haven't much used them here. I don't know if I'll
get looks as I drive down the street. Part of me thinks
everyone is going to stare at me and think that I am just a
fat lump," she says.
It's a hostility that her husband, who uses a powered
wheelchair because of lifelong mobility problems, tends not
to encounter; crudely, wheelchairs elicit understanding from
passersby while mobility scooters trigger irritation.
Greenhalgh says: "If someone sees you in a wheelchair, they
assume you are 100% disabled, but with us they are
confused." The technology has improved vastly since he first
used them 20 years ago. "To begin with they wouldn't take my
weight and I'd burn out the motor. Now they come in all
shapes and sizes, for all terrains," he says.
As a former driving instructor (the country's youngest
driving instructor when he qualified at 21) he is very
critical of people who drive their scooters irresponsibly.
"The problem now is that people drive them very badly, they
put them on full speed in shopping centres," he says,
showing how a switch, not much bigger than a toothpaste tube
lid, can be turned to the right to reach 8mph (which is the
out-of-town limit; 4mph is the top speed allowed in urban
areas). "It's horrendous."
The growing market in secondhand scooters, he says, is led
by relatives of newly deceased users, who want to offload
them quickly. He is annoyed by this increase in able-bodied
users, saying they buy them "because of the fuel prices, or
because they're so lazy they can't be bothered using a bike
or a bus, or because they're drinkers. Go to a pub, you'll
see them parked outside. We need to stop able-bodied people
from using them. If every Tom, Dick or Harry gets one it
will be chaos."
His girlfriend, Sue Brett-Michaels, 55, a former healthcare
assistant, now redeployed in a NHS library because her
severe arthritis makes it hard to stand up for long periods,
says people respond negatively to seeing her on a scooter,
particularly when she gets up from it to walk to the car.
"People wonder why I need one when I can walk, but I can
only take three or four steps. Any more is just too painful.
People tut and say: 'These bloody things get in the way.' I
wish I didn't need one. I would absolutely love not to be
forced to use one of these."
Greenhalgh says: "I tell people: 'You can have this and I'll
have your legs.'"
Alison Seabeck, Labour MP for Plymouth Moor View, wants the
government to regulate the industry more closely. She is
concerned that no department keeps figures for the number of
people who have been killed or injured in mobility scooter
related incidents. She too is worried by the growth in the
secondhand market. She was shocked recently to see a woman
"leap out of her mobility vehicle, rush into the shops, come
back with heavy bags and spring back into it". "Of course,
you can't judge the nature of someone's disability by
looking at them; people with arthritis and MS have days when
they feel fit, and days when they can't move more than a
couple of steps, but we need to make sure that they're being
used appropriately. At the moment we just don't know who is
buying them. It's a real can of worms. The government has to
Among manufacturers, there is a recognition that the
industry will have to deal with the rising controversy.
Because there are some government grants for the vehicles,
this hatred of the scooter is getting muddled up with a
broader, rising resentment of so-called benefit scroungers,
stoked by the government's tougher rhetoric on what it
describes as "idlers and layabouts", as it pushes through
huge cuts to disability benefits.
Steve Perry, Electric Mobility marketing manager, says:
"People have a view that there are a lot of people claiming
benefits that they are not entitled to. There is some
confusion. Subliminally it makes them more cynical, more
hostile towards scooter users.
"But a lot of the hostility to scooters is simply because
there are now lots of them. People see them in shopping
centres, racing through, too fast. They are very quiet;
there is no whirring noise like a car engine to let you know
they are coming. But the independence they give … we get
letters from people telling us that it has revolutionised
Although the market is growing, there has been such a rapid
expansion of companies making the product that there is less
money for individual suppliers, prices have dropped and
companies now are having to compete on image. Only a few
years ago, buyers just got to select between burgundy or
dark blue. Now manufacturers in China and the Far East have
moved from golf buggies or mopeds into the market, and are
offering huge choice.
Explaining the Vegas product brand, Steve Hughes, commercial
director of Roma Medical, says: "We want people to feel that
they are going to have some fun with it."
Tim Ross, TGA Supersport's sales manager, says his products
are for ex-bikers or for "someone who doesn't want to be
told: 'Right, you're old, you're disabled, so get a red
scooter. It's a little bit modern, it's a bit funky."
Mark Hermolle, managing director of Kymco Healthcare,
explains that baby-boomer scooter users are demanding
beautifully designed and powerful products.
"An earlier generation would say: if I can't get there with
my stick, I won't go anywhere. But scooters have become much
more acceptable. Scooters are an extension of yourself. Just
as you think, 'I can either buy an ugly suit or a smart
one', the same is true of scooters. People take pride in
these products. They don't want to look as if they are
driving around on an old bread bin."
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