Archive for July 2014

Cars and wheelchairs

July 2, 2014

I’m thinking today about cars and wheelchairs. One of these devices empowers the user by boosting mobility. The other is ostensibly about mobility but actually marks people out as part of a certain group and has a disempowering effect. Can you guess which is which?

Disability activists are working hard to educate people away from using the language of disempowerment about wheelchairs; the idea that people are “stuck in” them, “confined” to them, “forced to” use them. And quite rightly, because this kind of talk is horseshit. A wheelchair isn’t a prison. It isn’t something you’re forced to use. It’s a mobility device, and people use them because it improves their mobility.

Cars, on the other hand, disempower everybody. Yes, a car is by design a mobility device. But in practice, they serve to reduce everybody’s mobility.

There’s a reason why people with a car-centric mindset are nicknamed “cagers”. It’s because they’re trapped by vehicle ownership. We all know them. They’re the people who insist on driving to a place that’s easily reached in other ways, then spend ages trying to find a parking space. They’re the people who sit in the pub, or at parties, not drinking because they’re driving, not able to relax because they’re not drinking. Their car simply can’t be left at home; it has to go everywhere and its needs must be met.

If you have the cager mindset, your car will prevent you from walking to the shops for a pint of milk – because “why make life hard for yourself?” Your car will prevent you from ever trying to cycle on the roads. It’ll prevent you from walking to the pub or taking a bus to a friend’s house. It’ll make you tense and uptight. You’ll never wonder whether there’s an easier way of getting from A to B. You’ll just take the car and then whine because you couldn’t find a parking space.

Of course, it’s not the car itself preventing you from doing all these things. It’s the cager mindset, and it’s difficult to escape. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Free bus passes for pensioners are a great example of a cultural “nudge” that changes long-established habits. But many of us go our entire working lives without seriously considering alternatives to those habits.

Meanwhile, other people’s choices are restricted too. Bus services don’t get axed because nobody’s going that way any more; they get axed because most of the people going that way are choosing to use a car. Cars make it less pleasant and more dangerous to walk or cycle; they increase rates of asthma and cardiovascular disease; they increase social isolation; they restrict children’s freedom to play outside.

And wheelchair users? Of course wheelchair users have needs as well. But the difference is that a wheelchair improves the user’s life. It improves the user’s mobility. It’s just a tool, being used in the correct way. So why don’t we think enough about the “correct” way to use cars? Why don’t we explore alternatives? The problem is car culture.