Mobility News

Winter Car Care

Wintery conditions can make driving in winter quite a challenge. Poor weather plus early dark nights and late dark mornings can combine to increase the risk of collisions.

However, maximising the roadworthiness and safety of a vehicle with the weather conditions in mind is a sensible approach to driving in general – and at this time of year in particular.

As tyres are in permanent contact with the road and significantly impact on the grip and the driver’s control of the vehicle for steering, accelerating, and braking, it’s clearly important to get them right.

The deeper the tyre tread the better (a minimum of 3mm is recommended) and it should be even all around the tyre. In the UK, the legal minimum tread for tyres is 1.6mm. In addition, tyres are safer at their recommended pressure, and the wrong pressure can cause them to wear unevenly, so checking the tyre pressures regularly and adding air as required is important.

Topping up windscreen wash and engine coolant – after making sure that the fluids are diluted correctly – is sensible, and it’s worth checking the windscreen wipers and car battery as they tend to be well-used at this time of year. Regular checks on the lights to make sure they are fully functioning is essential as the more a car is visible the better, and it may even be worth considering a winter service.

For winter journeys long or short, wearing warm clothes and keeping a spare blanket, food, and a drink on standby will be invaluable if an unexpected traffic delay or breakdown occurs. It’s also worth keeping a torch, extra socks, boots or wellingtons, de-icer and scraper, a warning triangle and even a small spade in the boot.

Obviously, driving at unnecessary speed, under pressure, and winter weather conditions are unlikely to mix well so allow plenty of time for a journey. In bad weather it’s going to take longer than normal so make sure that windows are clear, lights are clean, and number plates are visible before setting off.

Once driving, keep the car well-ventilated as high heating can cause the driver to become drowsy. This will also help to reduce an irritating build-up of condensation.

Car journeys take place all throughout the year, but in the particular conditions of winter, adequate preparation of the car can help mitigate risk and increase safety on the road.

Workplace access benefits everyone.

Since around seven and a half million working age people in the UK have a disability, it’s reasonable to expect the workplace to consist of diverse teams, and for companies to make workplace adjustments necessary to widen their talent pool and secure the best candidates for recruitment and retention.

Consequently, some companies have, signed up to the government’s disability confident employer scheme which is designed to help employers recruit inclusively and not miss out on the skills and talent available in previously under-represented groups. It is designed to encourage employers to recruit and retain disabled people and those with health conditions.

This means that some companies have changed their approach by adapting their processes and established set-ups of recruitment and retention to aid inclusivity.

Though this takes time, currently, around 8,300 companies have engaged in a recruitment and retention of disabled people programme by signing up to the Disability Confident ‘Committed ‘level.

A further 3,200 companies have moved up from that to ‘Employer’ level, where they must take action to deliver on the commitment, while approximately 200 companies have reached ‘Leader’ status. This means that they demonstrate to employees, customers, and communities the positive influence of having a diverse and inclusive workforce.

Companies obviously have to take physical steps and adjustments to provide better accessibility options and workplace availability to cater for disabled employees – and have a clear and consistent core message ingrained throughout the organisation.

Rather than being compelled to act however, it would obviously be more desirable for companies to take a proactive approach to inclusivity.

For those who have, the results have been overwhelmingly positive as they gain the best staff, change behaviours and cultures in their own businesses, networks and communities, and reap the benefits of inclusive recruitment practices.

VR for rehab

When we think of virtual reality (VR), we tend to think of gaming and entertainment as it is currently the largest VR market and a commercial area that is constantly evolving.

While VR concepts have existed for more than thirty years, it’s only relatively recently that the technology has revealed its potential in a variety of markets such as architecture, manufacturing, training and education.

This is also the case in the healthcare sector where has also been making headway. Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality (AR) are becoming increasingly utilised in patient rehabilitation and recovery post-accident, surgery or illness, the treatment of mental health issues and the training for, and carrying out, of surgical procedures.

For example, Google Glass can be used in an operating theatre during surgeries for surgeons to be advised on how to proceed while remaining hands-free.

Nevertheless, when it comes to balance exercises and cognitive functions, brain injury assessment or orthopaedic rehabilitation, current VR capability is restricted to single users interacting only with the practitioner.

However, the development of end-to-end, digital development platforms, to further collaboration between stakeholders in the current VR industry infrastructure should change things.
By integrating expertise in virtual reality, additive manufacturing, 3D geometrical form generation, user interface design, user-centred design, electronics design, systems integration and rehabilitation, patients with a disability could practice real-life situations in a controlled, safe environment, aiming to improve physical stamina, capability and cognitive skills.

In the future, VR could become a key tool in patient rehabilitation.

Inclusive smart cities

Technology moves at pace, and the potential for sensors, automation and energy-efficient buildings to change the lives of the residents moves ever-closer. There is also the potential for technology to provide the opportunity for making smart cities inclusive for people with disabilities right from the design and planning stage.

The rational behind smart cities is that they operate largely without human intervention. Though people will set the technologies to help smart cities function, automation will reduce the necessity for human staff. However, touch screen purchases – such as travel tickets for those with limited motor control – is an example of when a smart city needs to be inclusive if there are no actual staff.
Even with the best inclusivity intentions, practical usability can be found wanting. For example, a defibrillator for a beach was placed behind a shed containing two community wheelchairs. In another venue, the button installed for automatically opening a door was too high for a person in a wheelchair to reach.

If people without disabilities are designing smart cities, they may not so easily understand the different challenges faced by those who are disabled. Obtaining the input of disabled people in the planning processes and intended outcomes for smart cities is key. Before the professionals sign off projects, they need to be aware of, and understand, hidden barriers that people outside the disabled community may not notice before they finish the plans.

Some things are fundamental. For example, public conveniences. Generally, people are not impressed, so how much more difficult must it be for a disabled user when the traffic flow is restricted, and the doorways are narrow? Likewise, the necessity of braille for signage, or a text equivalent to audible feedback, does not tend to be automatically integrated.

It makes perfect sense that well-planned smart city that assists people with disabilities, could benefit everyone. Even temporary disability through injury or age-related difficulties are likely to affect most people at some point.

As they continue to develop, planning and integrating access for everyone who visits or lives in a smart city should be a foregone conclusion.

Being a good driver

During the winter when it’s dark, wet, windy and generally likely to be more challenging weather-wise, being a good driver is clearly an advantage.

So, how do we optimise our driving skills to try and keep driving as safe and enjoyable as possible. Obviously, managing our temperament is important. Being tolerant, calm and measured in potential tricky situations is a real bonus whereas anxiety, panic, or a short temper is unlikely to be helpful. Quick-thinking, on the other hand, is an asset.

Whilst many of us may not claim to be naturally tolerant and calm, to have the self-awareness necessary to recognise and try to overcome our bad habits and learn from our mistakes is part and parcel of being a good driver. As with most things, no matter how practiced or experienced we think we are, there is always something to learn.

Developing a courteous outlook towards other road users is a real advantage. Just like car drivers, other pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists are entitled to be there, and all users have to share the road together. That’s where patience and tolerance is key to avoiding adverse or avoidable consequences.

More practically in terms of the actual process of driving the vehicle, smooth gear changes, smooth acceleration, smooth braking and controlled steering are all signs of good driving – both for the maintenance of the vehicle and the comfort of the passengers. Driving smoothly and in anticipation of other road users and pedestrians makes us better prepared to deal with any potentially hazardous situations ahead such as icy or wet surfaces, runaway balls or scared animals. By being aware and paying attention, we can act pre-emptively on the information around us to anticipate and avoid problems – rather than having to react to them.

Finally, common sense always has a role to play in being a good driver. Tiredness, distractions and apathy can lead to accidents, so a good driver tries to minimise the risks and knows how to mitigate them when they occur, for example by stopping for a rest or a drink sooner rather than later.

No matter when we passed our test, being a good driver is an ever-evolving skill that needs constant attention for the benefit and enjoyment of everyone on the road.




Assistive technology potential

With the constant advances in assistive technology, help providing the tools to build confidence, ease social situations and support people with disabilities in leading independent lives, is improving.

According to research, over 1.5 million people in the UK have a learning difficulty. This means that adults and children who have a learning disability, which may also be combined with a physical disability, often find it difficult to communicate with others and can take longer to develop or learn new skills.

Artificial intelligence or AI is basically machine learning which demonstrates at least some of the behaviours associated with humans such as planning, reasoning, learning and problem-solving.

There are a few examples of Artificial Intelligence (AI) being used to support people with learning difficulties, but the potential is great for those with more than one condition or diagnosis. AI can adapt to user’s needs, personalise experiences, adapt to their pace and explain things in more appropriate and accessible terms. And the direct feedback available from AI gives other people – for example family members or carers – clearer insight into what works best.

An example of this is how Virtual Reality (VR) can enable people with learning difficulties learn and practice social skills and behaviours in a secure virtual environment. In fact, MenCap have used VR to help people with disabilities to prepare for, and manage, the experience of going to a polling station. Through VR, inclusivity and accessibility can be promoted.

Though the Internet of Things (IoT) is as yet still in its relative infancy, it has enhanced assistive technology considerably – from shoes that vibrate in certain places to help those with visual impairment, to hearing aids paired with smoke detectors and baby alarms to alert the user – it has huge potential to significantly increase people’s ability to move independently.

As the technology matures – at an ever-increasing pace – the support available to individuals will increase to the benefit and understanding of everyone.

Improving manual wheelchair design

Using the arms to rotate the wheels of a wheelchair puts a great deal of strain on the body – yet this is the typical method of propulsion for manual wheelchair users.

This means that for many, the physical stress that hands and arms are subjected to when manoeuvring the wheelchair, the physical stress that hands and arms are subjected to when manoeuvring the wheelchair is a routine problem.

According to Dr. Claire Flemmer, a professor at Massey University, New Zealand,

“Manual wheelchairs require an inefficient push effort where the user grips either the wheel or a slightly smaller rim on the outside – called the pushrim – and propels the chair forward by pushing the rim until they are forced let go and repeat the action. This means only about 25% of the action actually contributes to the chair going forward. This method causes an imbalanced repetitive strain on the shoulders and wrists that can lead to chronic pain. The longer a person uses the manual wheelchair, the worse it gets.”

So, Flemmer and a team at the university have developed a wheelchair design in which the user’s hands push and pull on the pushrim, rather than just pushing forward, without having to grip it. As this propulsion method uses 100% of the total arm movement it minimises wrist and shoulder problems in addition to making travelling uphill easier.

Because the chair’s gearing system allows for this movement, the user can keep their hands on the pushrim in both a standard and a run mode. Run mode prevents the chair from rolling backwards on a slope and is intended for difficult terrain or long journeys. It uses a three-gear system similar to that of a bicycle with a high gear to be used for easier terrain and the low gear is for more difficult terrain or an uphill path.

In addition, Professor Margit Gföhler and the biomechanics and rehabilitation research team at TU Wien University, Vienna, developed a drive process that uses a hand gear propulsion system. Similarly concerned with the repetitive strain placed upon manual wheelchair users, they used a biomechanical computer to analyse the motion sequences of the upper body which ascertained that a mechanical drive system driven by two hand gears was more ergonomic and gave the best motion sequence.

The rear wheels are mounted on the wheelchair’s armrests and driven through a toothed belt using the hand gears. This is more suitable for everyday use indoors as it is a more compact design. The drive technology enabled the user to achieve the same speeds as a regular wheelchair but with a sizeable reduction in effort.
Though electric power wheelchair design and technology continues to develop, the ease of use and lightness of manual wheelchairs means that continued progress in their design supports users to continue benefitting from increased comfort and better manoeuvrability too.

Accessible Taxis

For a taxi to be considered wheelchair accessible, it should have a lift or ramp to assist the wheelchair user with getting into and out of the vehicle.

However, research has suggested that there may only be one wheelchair accessible taxi per 1000 people in close to around 80% of England’s local authorities – mainly concentrated in major urban areas. Additionally, in some local authorities, part or all of taxi fleets are not required to be wheelchair accessible.

Currently, the majority of UK taxis and private hire vehicles (PHVs) are standard saloon cars which, while accessible to the majority of the population, including wheelchair users who can transfer to the vehicle with the driver placing their wheelchair in the boot, they are not accessible for people who need to remain seated in their wheelchair for the journey.

London-style taxis and some people carriers have been adapted to be wheelchair accessible vehicles or WAVs which means that they can offer a taxi service to users who are unable to transfer from wheelchair to vehicle.

Though there are around 1.2 million wheelchair users in the UK (the equivalent of around 1 in 56 people) according to the research, London had 2.3 accessible taxis per thousand people but only 12 cities were found to have in excess of 1 accessible taxi per thousand people.

At the time of the research, Wakefield had only 0.1 accessible taxi per thousand people making it the least accessible city, while Liverpool faired best with almost 3 accessible taxis per hundred thousand people.

According to government guidelines, a vehicle can be designated accessible if it is possible for a client to “enter, leave and travel in the passenger compartment in safety and reasonable comfort whilst seated in their wheelchair…” However, not all wheelchairs allow this, so some wheelchair users find themselves still unable to access what is an accessible taxi.

Nevertheless, according to the research, the number of local authorities requiring part or all of a taxi fleet to be wheelchair accessible has risen, as has the number of authorities requiring disability awareness training for taxi drivers so there appears to be some progress made.

The Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) believes that taxi and PHV services should be fully accessible to disabled travellers and have set out a proposed framework for achieving such a service.

AR Robot helpers

With controls that use augmented reality technology, people would be able to operate robots to help them perform tasks – such as scratching or applying creams – for which support would be of benefit.

The PR2 ‘robotic body surrogate’ can manipulate objects such as electric shavers, hairbrushes, or picking up water bottles.

Around four fifths of participants in a study were able to operate a mouse curser to control the robot and use it to perform tasks. The research was intended to establish whether using robotic body surrogates could improve the quality of life for people with disabilities.

Dr Phillip Grice from the Georgia Institute of Technology said,

“Our results suggest that people can improve their quality of life using robotic body surrogates. We have taken the first step toward making it possible for someone to purchase an appropriate robot, have it in their home, and benefit from it.”

In the primary study, the participants used their own assistive equipment to operate a mouse curser, learning to operate the robot so that it could support them when performing their own care tasks.

Because the web-based interface (which functions through the internet) has been built around a simple single-button, users don’t need to have long, onerous training sessions and it would be accessible to many. For the user, the world is viewed from cameras positioned inside the robot’s ‘head’ so they can move it around their environment and control the robot’s arms and hands.

The next step is to reduce the size and cost of the robot to progress it further towards becoming commercially viable.

Tips for choosing an electric powerchair

Choosing an electric powerchair is a very personal choice and the ideal model for one person may not be suitable for another. Having said that, taking certain things into consideration whichever model you are interested in should help make the decision.

Technology changes very rapidly and so it’s worth finding out what technological features are available, and how you would use them. That way, you’ll be able to prioritise the features you consider to be necessary and those that would be a nice addition.

By thinking about your interests, you can look for powerchair features that enable them. For example, if you enjoy travel or being outdoors your powerchair should be equipped to get to the places you want to go. If you need to be able to negotiate lots of kerbs or more off-road terrain, not all powerchairs (or their batteries) perform the same so research is key.

Similarly, powerchairs will vary in build quality and durability. They can be an expensive investment and you don’t want to have ongoing or unexpected maintenance and repair costs.

You may also want to research whether any of the powerchairs on your shortlist can be customised (in addition to the usual customisation of the cushioning, seat size and length, footplate and armrest height and position) at the point of purchase or even retrofitted if you decide that it could be tailored even more specifically for you.

Consider how you will transport your powerchair. Will the one you are interested in fold up? How much space it will take up? How heavy is it and will it fit inside your wheelchair accessible vehicle? All of these factors may influence whether your final choice is portable, full-size or heavy-duty.

Storage is another important consideration. The ability to get close enough to a socket for charging is an essential requirement whether your powerchair will be stored in a garage or in the home.

And finally, the perfect powerchair will very quickly become less perfect if it’s not comfortable. And the longer your trip, the more comfortable it needs to be so try to test for at least 20 minutes if possible.

The choice of power wheelchairs on the market is wide but taking time to research and having a targeted approach should help you choose the best option for you and your lifestyle.