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Freedom on wheels

Nicola Sleap

Could it be that disability has more to do with our preconceptions of people than their actual impairments? When Nicola Sleap decided to use a wheelchair, her horizons broadened in ways she hadn't predicted. Could church and society take a similar view?


The podium used in the velodrome the day I attended the Paralympics last summer was problematic. It was also highly symbolic in terms of its implications about disability. Unlike those used in many other venues throughout the Paralympics, the podium there was neither level access nor ramped. It was instead a podium with steps.

The message was ironic: here at the Paralympics, wheelchair users are not truly welcome. Whilst I'm not sure whether any wheelchair users were competing that day, I certainly saw some wheelchair users in the training area, and there were several competitors using crutches. Stepping up did not look easy for some of those using the podium.

It was a wasted opportunity at an event otherwise conceived to shatter the stereotypes of limitation around disabled people. The implication of those steps was that standing is inherently superior to sitting or wheelchair use, particularly when presenting an image of disabled people to the public. The steps implied that competitors must try their very hardest to appear as 'normal', or non-mobility impaired, as possible. Several competitors were reunited with their mobility equipment shortly after the press coverage - as if by avoiding wheelchair use they somehow avoided being truly "disabled".


I too used to understand disability in this way. At a time when I was using crutches outside of the house my friend Beccy asked me whether I would consider using a wheelchair. 'No', I replied, 'because then I'd look disabled'. This negated all the possible positive effects of wheelchair use in my mind. Fortunately Beccy questioned what exactly was wrong with 'looking disabled'.

Around the same time I had a conversation with an acquaintance, Sam. I mentioned that I was involved in a group for 'disabled' students and Sam said to me 'but you aren't disabled, are you, because that's something else?' It was an awkward moment for me during a period when my views about disability were changing, and it served to reinforce my former understanding of the term 'disabled' as something negative and shameful.

Through Beccy and through meeting other friends who were disabled in a university group, my attitudes were slowly transformed. I was introduced to the social model of disability, which holds that disability is a social phenomenon. Disability is not a person's impairment. A society which fails to recognise and meet the needs of those with impairments is the disabling factor.


I found myself increasingly liberated by this understanding of disability: I needed no longer apologise for my access needs or feel embarrassed by wheelchair use. Rather, society had a responsibility to meet these needs wherever possible. I no longer 'had' a disability; I had an impairment which often resulted in disability where my needs were not met.

While society is more accepting of disability than in the past, this is only up to a point. I suspect this comes down to fear, at least in part. Fear, because in fact we are all physically and mentally fragile - impairment of some kind could become a reality for any of us, and with an ageing population this gets increasingly likely. Some people seem to feel a need to divide disabled people into those who are 'less' and 'more' disabled, partly in order to decide how to interact with them, if at all. Distinctions such as these are usually unhelpful. Younger people in particular sometimes seem keen to steer clear of those they perceive to be 'severely disabled'.

Jesus, on the other hand, was radically inclusive, and interacted with and healed many disabled people, regardless of their impairment or the social stigma attached to it. This has implications for our treatment of disabled people as Christians.


Followers of Christ have an opportunity to go beyond mere acceptance of disability, and be welcoming of it in all its forms. Just as God loves each of us for who we are and as we are, Christians should welcome wheelchair users as they are, following Jesus's example of seeing beyond social stigma. Listening to the voices of those liberated by wheelchair use could be a beginning.

When I began to realise that for me wheelchair use could be a positive thing which would mean that I could do far more than I had become accustomed to doing, I began to be filled with excitement. Not long after this realisation I borrowed a friend's wheelchair and used it to go for a day out exploring the grounds of an abbey. Never before had I been able to wander carelessly for a mile or more, not worrying about when the pain in my foot and leg would begin to set in.

In a recent TED talk, the artist Sue Austin showed how she had even adapted her wheelchair for underwater exploration . In some senses this is the pinnacle of liberation through mobility equipment - though we need to be careful that such achievements don't detract from efforts to normalise everyday wheelchair use.

I still experience wheelchair use as an overwhelmingly positive aspect of my life. A 2004 survey of wheelchair users and their facilitators showed that almost 80 per cent of respondents strongly agreed that wheelchairs can be liberating for disabled people. Just fewer than 65 per cent felt personally liberated by wheelchair use. I would suggest that the difference between these figures arises from issues in physical access to buildings and services and from state provision of wheelchairs that are often not the best.


The right wheelchairs then, coupled with excellent physical access to buildings and services, can enable people with mobility impairments, giving them almost equal access to society as those without mobility impairments. Because of recent improvements in physical access to buildings, many people seem to be under the impression that that battle has been won. However there is still a very long way to go before all public buildings and services have level access. Wheelchair accessible toilets are still relatively few and far between, particularly in privately run restaurants and bars.

Wheelchair access in many settings is limited to those in passive roles rather than including access to all areas. Whilst many churches today are now wheelchair accessible, there is very rarely wheelchair access to a dais, lectern or pulpit. At Christian festivals or talks the same is usually true of the stage.

If we are to be fully inclusive we need to begin to change this, and to thereby give out the message that people with mobility impairments are welcome in all areas of church and Christian life, including in active roles like ministry. This would not only benefit wheelchair users, it would change attitudes and ensure that as our congregations age older members can continue to minister, whether or not they develop mobility impairments. Following Christ's example, if we are seeking to build kingdom communities here and now, equality of access is paramount.


The majority of wheelchair users in the UK access mobility equipment through state-run services. Whilst some of the manual wheelchairs provided through these services can be good, powered mobility options are less good, and are often not provided at all. What's more, manual wheelchair use fully enables a very small minority of those with mobility impairments. Many people therefore remain unnecessarily dependent on others to have their mobility needs adequately met. Whilst some people may be happy with this situation, many are not and others are unaware of the better equipment that is available.

Research suggests that the provision of powered equipment to mobility impaired children as young as 18 months old improves their development in several areas. This in turn suggests that a social model approach to disability focusing on effective independent mobilisation rather than walking is vital in enabling children to go on to live full lives. Unfortunately it currently seems relatively rare that the state will provide children under the age of five with powered mobility equipment. Worse still, young children are often given buggies rather than wheelchairs, which further restricts a child's development.

As mobility equipment which enables full equality with non-mobility impaired people in every sense does not yet exist, mobility impaired people should be provided with the best equipment currently available throughout life, in order to live a life as near as possible to equal with a non-mobility impaired person. This means equipment which provides the best agility, range of three-dimensional movement, ability to enter as many buildings as possible, possibility of reaching and carrying things, and interacting on the same physical level as peers as possible. Whilst such equipment is expensive, studies suggest that cost should not be prohibitive, as access to first class equipment usually reduces other costs in a mobility-impaired person's life, often also covered by the state.

In order for wheelchair users to be fully included in society and in our churches, and in order for wheelchairs to continue to liberate people, we need active campaigns around state wheelchair provision and level access to buildings, as well as to encourage education about wheelchair use. The current economic climate, and particularly the cuts, militate against this. But if we are to build a Kingdom community which includes and values those often currently on the margins, we must witness to a vision of society and church in which all can participate fully and on an equal level.

Without that witness, our churches risk the equivalent of steps on a paralympic podium, unnecessarily disabling people with impairments.