One size doesn’t fit all…

Rolling Inspiration
By Rolling Inspiration
5 Min Read

Many wheelchair users either can’t afford quality wheelchairs or face long waiting lists. Donated wheelchairs seem like the solution, but there’s a catch.

ccording to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than a billion people need assistive technologies such as wheelchairs. However, only one in every 10 of those has access to them. Thanks to donations, many governments are able to provide assistance to people with disabilities.

For example, the majority of wheelchairs in Zimbabwe are donated. However, there are no regulations in place regarding their quality, and they often take the form of a makeshift chair with a plastic garden stool as a seat, or they’re ill-fitting with little or no back support, or they are repaired with duck-tape or old rags. While these wheelchairs enable users to do basic things – like get out of bed and move around with the help of friends and family – they offer very limited mobility.

Zimbabwe is not alone. There are also no regulations regarding donated wheelchairs in South Africa.

Why regulate? 

“Because there is no control over the quality of wheelchairs being imported into South Africa, cheap chairs that do not meet any local or international durability standards are brought in and sold. They often break down very quickly and have to be replaced,” says Elsje Scheffler, physiotherapist and researcher at the Centre of Rehabilitation Studies at the University of Stellenbosch.

The majority of South Africans, about 80 percent, receive their wheelchair through the public healthcare service and programmes. South Africa signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), which obliges the state to promote, defend and reinforce the right of people with disabilities.

It requires the government to develop appropriate services and equipment as well as supply access to affordable information and trained staff.

“In line with the UNCRPD, there is a wide range of products available to meet individual needs. All products adhere to minimum durability standards,” Scheffler explains.

While the public-health facilities have to conform to the UNCRPD requirement, private healthcare services do not.

“Wheelchair users in private healthcare services depend on the benefits of the medical aids and private funds. Often funds are limited and users are supplied with the cheapest wheelchairs, which often do not meet minimum durability standards,” Scheffler says.

Wheelchair users who rely on government might be confident in the standard and durability of the wheelchair, but they might have to wait as long as two years to get one. The government often provides additional funding to reduce the waiting list, but that is not enough.

“The non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or disabled people organisations (DPOs) and other donor organisations assist in addressing the shortfall,” Scheffler notes.

“Breakages may occur and can also cause injury. Donations often consist of only one type of wheelchair with ‘standard’ features throughout, except for the size, and they are therefore not appropriate for all users.”

Regulations could also address the maintenance needed to ensure that the wheelchairs are in the best possible condition.

Scheffler points out: “Spares on imported products are often not compatible with local products, or, if correct spares are available, they can be expensive. In addition, donated products are also often second-hand or end-of-the-line products, further compromising the ability to maintain them in good working order.

“Users who receive donated wheelchairs are responsible for their maintenance. If the wheelchair is provided through the state, however, the state is responsible for maintenance and replacement of the wheelchair. Once a user has received a donated wheelchair, their name is removed from the waiting list. If the wheelchair was not appropriate, they go back to the bottom of that list.”

How can one help?

Scheffler suggests that the appropriate wheelchair should be fitted by a trained service provider.

“The wheelchair should adhere to local and international durability standards and be compatible with local spares. Where possible, donations should be made through local services to ensure ongoing monitoring and repairs. Many wheelchair donations have successfully been done this way,” she says.

If you are planning on donating a wheelchair, be sure that the wheelchair is fitted to the user’s needs by a trained professional, and that there is maintenance available to the wheelchair user if needed.

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