Trains, Planes and Mobility Scooters

Author: David Prendergast, Maynooth University

Monica lives by the sea, in a small village in Northern Ireland, a short distance from Belfast. A retired schoolteacher in her late 70s, poor health and a degenerative spinal condition has stolen much of her height and mobility. Her presence is undiminished, however. Indeed, an enquiring mind and precise diction, coupled with the ability to switch between a cheerful disposition and a commanding manner at will, promises a rapid education for those who make the mistake of underestimating or patronizing her. A bus driver learned this the hard way. She recalls struggling to board an empty bus at the start of its route with her rollator walker full of shopping. Pointing to the sticker of a wheelchair proclaiming the accessibility merits of the vehicle, Monica asked the driver to lower the ramp and was met with a curt refusal. ‘That’s only for wheelchairs’ she was informed. After some struggle to embark she managed to get on board the bus and a stern lecture ensued. “I sat down in the front seat and I told him strongly but politely what he had done wrong.  Well, I said, you know, I’ve got two solicitors in my family and I do know what’s right and I think you’re being very foolish to be so uninformed about this.”

On this occasion, an apology was issued from an chastened driver, but Monica has not always been so successful on public transport. In general however, over the course of her gradual deterioration, she claims that most people are only too pleased to provide assistance as long as you make direct requests in an unembarrassed manner and treat them as if they are a favoured relative from the outset.

Monica’s history with mobility aides is long and circuitous; a string of humorous tales of experiments, falls, dead batteries and burned out motors. Her ability to manage with a walker alone now behind her, Monica first used a mobility scooter in England rented by her daughter. She loved it so much, her family bought and shipped the machine to her in Ireland at great expense. Having never driven a car, it was not easy to learn, especially negotiating tight areas and backing up. Her first proud adventure in it into her village ended with her trapped on the edge of a road kerb after a miscalculation over its height. The scooter died and she had to call a friend to tow her home, only occasionally bashing into the back of his car due to the lack of onboard brakes.

Back home she tried to fix it, initially replacing its batteries. “No, it was nothing normal like that. And so I bought a new replacement motherboard for it. And really, they’re not very complicated. There’s only a few wires, you see, and they’re all matched up with a label on it ABC. And then you have only to take it off very carefully and attach the right wires. My Golly, it didn’t make it work, so that was very disappointing.” Disgusted at her failure she resorted to paying experts who informed her the scooter was beyond repair.

Monica loves to learn and frequently uses the internet and Google to explore the world beyond her doors. She also thinks Open University TV programmes have improved dramatically. She’s currently fascinated with the idea of multiple universes and feels the answer to what happens beyond death may lie here. Her iPad is constantly by her side and Facebook keeps her connected to her children and friends overseas.

She bemoans however, the death of the instruction manual.

“I remember when I got my first iPhone, I went to the shop to get it I remember asking the girl ‘is there not a better instruction book with it?’.  ‘Oh No’, she says. Just what the young say as they are not bothered by that. And the shop girl said, ‘I know it’s difficult, more difficult for you, but I just play around it. And that’s all you do. You just play around with it and you’ll find out everything’ and I thought ‘Hrm! You know. I’m not used to just playing around with stuff. I love to have instructions. You know, like a recipe. I want instructions to everything.”

Undeterred by the death of her first scooter and an avid fan of eBay and other online secondhand sales apps, Monica has now compiled an enviable garage of mobility aides. Her next scooter was smaller but sturdy. That is until she drove it down the garden where the wheels got stuck in the soft earth and tipped her into her hydrangea hedge. Her next purchase was a much bigger machine with headlights and indicators. She could not believe her luck as she managed to buy it very cheaply second hand for £600 from an older lady who moved into sheltered accommodation with rooms too small to host such a device.

Monica also bought herself a powerful electric wheelchair with independently driven large wheels; her equivalent of a 4X4 off road vehicle so she can join her daughter on long hikes and countryside walks. This has carried her up steep hills and rocky pathways in forests and sites such as Giant’s Causeway, but she learned the hard way not to use it in the city. Uneven pavements with kerbs send the wheels in different directions and steering becomes difficult, dangerous with so many people around.

“I thought, oh, my God. I’m not going to drive a wheelchair in the city again. It’s much easier on a mobility scooter if you are going through a crowd of people. At least I have found that because you have got the small driving part in front of you, the bit that comes up. A bit of metal and something to hold onto. Whereas in a wheelchair you are exposed.”

People reading their mobile phones, inattentive to their surroundings, walk into the back of the chair or force her to suddenly brake, risking injury to all.

Navigating other forms of public transport rarely causes Monica trouble, although she notes that small train stops or ‘halts’ without proper stations can be very difficult to traverse in Northern Ireland. Trains are usually well setup for people with wheelchairs and the staff tend to be accommodating and well trained. The secret she explains is to always do your research on the internet or even better call ahead on the telephone and alert them to your times and points on your journey.

A keen traveler, Monica has always enjoyed travelling on planes and argues that no one disabled should worry about going through airports. Trips to visit her children in Europe, the Middle East and Australia has given her extensive experience negotiating assistance to the gate. The support and attention can vary according to how busy the staff are, but she always has “a bit of craic with the people pushing her” and suggests that “I never feel that I’m sort of like a weak invalid or anything silly. No, I don’t feel that way.” Eager to help others, Monica wants it to be widely known that it is free to take wheelchairs or scooters on planes. “I’ve travelled by plane a lot since I have been really unable to walk very far, and the airports are wonderful. They put my vehicle in the hold and bring the batteries in with the pilot… you can ride your wheelchair to the foot of the steps in the UK and you can wait for the steps. If you can’t walk at all, they’ll take you in another wheelchair in a lift up to the cabin, and they don’t want you to sit in your own wheelchair in the plane even if it’s booked for you. I suppose it would block the way.”

Now grounded by COVID-19, Monica is avoiding planes, trains and buses alike, keeping herself busy with reading, writing, her garden and a few close friends and carers. She does her grocery shopping online and has also received some food parcels from the community. She claims she loves to be alone and only remembers being bored once in her life. When asked about what concerns her, she worries about how many young people are coping during the lockdowns due to an inability to cook. Perhaps, much like well-designed step by step technology instructions, her much loved cooking recipes may help here.

Release Date

November 2020

Useful Links
  1. The impact of mobility scooters on their users. Does their usage help or hinder?: A state of the art review.
Image of a stone path through a garden with many colorful flowers