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“It’s a zimmer frame” mobility aids and community reaction

LAC Chair, Allyson Hamblett, talks about her experiences using a mobility aid and the reaction from the community to it. LACs are advisory committees that help provide governance for our regions.

We live in a society where people have different abilities, strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes people need equipment to help them get around the community. While, this equipment is often invaluable, there seems to be a lot of preconceptions about using equipment such as wheelchairs or walkers. I experienced this first hand when I started using a walking frame in February 2011.

I was forced to use a walker because of an underactive thyroid, which affected my walking. I have had to get use to my walker, especially all connotations around using a mobility aid. The truth is that I actually like walking now as I feel steady on my feet and am not scared of falling over, but I had to get my head around using a walker.

“It’s a zimmer frame”. 

I cringed at that comment when I heard it at a meeting a few months ago.  It made me cringe because of the idea that zimmer frames are only for older people.  Being in my early 40’s, I didn’t see myself as old enough, not that there is anything wrong with being an older person.   “Your disability has moved to the next level” was another comment that I had to deal with at a quite difficult time of my life.  There have been some advantages to using a walker. At least when people see the walker, they know that I have a disability, instead of a person who may have had too much to drink.
I do wish, however that people would realise that people of all ages use walkers. It is a useful aid for anyone who has trouble balancing. I am sure even the odd university student could do with a walker on the way home from a big night out. The reality is mobility aids are just there to assist the person. We shouldn’t jump to assumptions about the person using the aid.
Occasionally there are problems. Using a walker on a bus is difficult, particularly getting off when there is a gap between the exit and the pavement. A colleague recently mentioned that in France the public transport system is excellent; bus drivers bend over backwards for people with disabilities, manoeuvring the bus very close to the pavement so it is easier for them to get off.  Here one bus driver refused to put the ramp down for me, the driver said ramps were only for people who used wheelchairs. Often the big problem with buses is the driver’s attitude not the bus.

Another problem is opening big heavy doors, and manoeuvring the walker at the same time. People often don’t think about these issues. A couple of months ago I attended a conference in Wellington.  It was interesting to see the behaviour of airport staff when faced with a walker. When I got to Auckland Airport, I asked the airport staff if I could take my walker up to the gate and for the walker to then be put in the hold (this was done amazingly well in Melbourne at the end of last year). The staff said wouldn’t a wheelchair be easier; her voice indicating what is a walker and how on earth would a walker help.  I gave in and surrendered my independence and sat in the “Special Assistance” area of the airport until I was taken through the gate, and onto the plane. I was met at Wellington with a wheelchair.  My walker arrived safely with me. But why couldn’t I have used it?

On disembarking, we asked why my walker couldn’t be brought up to the door of the plane (a group of us flew down together).  We were told that someone had fallen over when using a walker on the air bridge.  I laughed to myself when I heard this.  I have fallen over so many times because of my cerebral palsy.  It’s almost as if my type of cerebral palsy is too much of a health and safety risk these days.

At Wellington Domestic waiting for my return flight to Auckland, the process was slightly better.  They did suggest a wheelchair, but I ended up with a luggage trolley to push around the airport until it was time to board the plane. I sent an email to Air New Zealand outlining the problems I had encountered.  They responded:

“I referred this matter to our Passenger Services Manager at Auckland Airport for a definitive response.  I can confirm that there are no restrictions with regards to the use of walking frames and they have the same entitlements as wheelchairs in that they can be used to the aircraft and then stowed in the baggage hold. That said, I am sorry that our staff have been less than accommodating in your efforts to retain your walker.  This matter has been raised with our Airport teams in Auckland and Wellington and will be addressed with our staff and crew.”

I’m really pleased by the response, but it highlights a breakdown in communication between policy and reality; I had  to remind them about their own policy.
What are your thoughts?

5 Responses to ““It’s a zimmer frame” mobility aids and community reaction”

  1. Merryn Straker says:

    Interesting article Alison, I have had some big fights with Air New Zealand taking our son last year then 4 with his walker. I asked for us to be able to board first to give him time to get there, first time was no problem, next flight they didn’t even bother they made the call to ‘I don’t know why you are so upset I’m getting a wheelchair’. He has never had to use a wheelchair and he didn’t need to use one then! I am that pushy parent that never gives an inch when they don’t respect his rights. On the next trip one helped me check in, I had Oscar needing help and our 18 month old and she remembered us having checked us in last time and actually took us down to the gate and told them what we would be doing 🙂 I think it is an education process, let the staff know that a walker is just as acceptable as a wheelchair or a baby stroller that can be taken through to the plane and put in the hold.

    • Allyson says:

      Hi Merryn
      When I went to Melbourne last year for a holiday the Airport staff said that walkers were treated the same as baby strollers. Arriving in Melbourne, my walker was waiting for me at the door to the plane. Despite not working that smoothly for the rest of my holiday, I was very impressed with Melbourne. I think the basic problem is that people understand disability to be one thing – they fail to understand the diversity of disabled people.

  2. Susan Sherrard says:

    Great article Allyson! Public transport remains such an issue for our community. I’m hoping the new trains being brought in by Auckland Council is going to make life easier – but totally agree it will all come down to attitude!

  3. Roger Loveless says:

    The main thing is to keep the pressure on and the issues in the public eye. Air NZ have lifted their game in recent years but still would seem to have occasional lapses. Unfortunately many bus services are still not accessible. It takes guts and patience for people with disabilities to regain their independence, and we need to measure transport network performance not on how many people with disabilities use it but on how many are NOT using it. If people with disabilities aren’t using the buses and footpaths, then there are almost certainly barriers! Good on you Allyson for raising this.

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