Changing Lives | Living North

Changing Lives

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Wheelchair
This month, we spoke to Steve Wilkinson about his mission to make the world more accessible, being the founder of an international event and how his latest project could help disabled people in Yorkshire
‘Estimates suggest there are around a million wheelchair users in the UK. I might not get them all, but I want to get the numbers of people in the network into the tens of thousands’

Steve, or Wheelchair Steve (a name, he tells us, that many people have known him as for years), was born in 1953 with Spina Bifida and has used a wheelchair for most of his life. He didn’t start school until he was eight years old but flourished from then on; passing his O and A levels, before graduating from university with a BSc in Computational Mathematics. For many years now, Steve has been instrumental in raising awareness around the issues affecting disabled people.

Along with his charity fundraising and the various professional accolades he has been awarded, Steve also received acknowledgement from an American company called Smart Chair. On their blog, they had included him on a list of ‘inspirational people in wheelchairs to follow on social media.’ Stephen Hawking was the first name on the list – Steve was third.

Steve is the founder of International Wheelchair Day, which has occurred annually every 1 March since 2008. The date Steve selected for it is a symbolic one – his mother’s birthday. ‘She pushed me to school and encouraged me to have a positive attitude to life,’ he says, ‘so it’s a kind of thank you to her from me’. The day has grown annually since its inception, with locations as far-reaching as Adelaide in Australia and Kathmandu in Nepal recognising the day in various ways.

‘It’s a day to celebrate the freedom a wheelchair gives,’ Steve says. ‘People might think that being in a wheelchair is a negative, but it’s actually a positive: I couldn’t get out and about without it, as other wheelchair users couldn’t, so it’s a day to celebrate that freedom and the work that other people do to provide and maintain wheelchairs. It’s also to recognise the lack of wheelchairs in some parts of the world where there’s a very small percentage of people getting wheelchairs who need them. I would like to get it officially recognised by the United Nations.’

His latest venture is something called Wheelchair Ambassadors. ‘The premise of it,’ Steve explains ‘is that most wheelchair users will probably go to the same places – a pub or a restaurant or a leisure attraction – all the time in the area where they live; they’ll go somewhere they’re familiar with so they’re aware of the facilities that are there. The idea is to establish a network of wheelchair users in Yorkshire and throughout the UK. If I was going to travel to Scarborough, for instance – somewhere I’m not familiar with – I could get in touch with Wheelchair Ambassadors representing Scarborough through the network who know the area well and have a correspondence online. I could find out more about a restaurant or attraction they might recommend and, specifically, how my personal needs would be satisfied.’ The idea is an alternative to more standard online reviews of the accessibility information provided by venues which, Steve says, can both become out of date quickly or provide insufficient information. ‘It’s best to find someone who knows the area and can answer detailed questions,’ he explains.

Steve is now actively promoting Wheelchair Ambassadors on Twitter and on his website. A quick search for related tweets reveals advertisements for ambassadors in Halifax, Wakefield, Sheffield, Doncaster and Barnsley. ‘It’s quite unique,’ Steve says. ‘I’ve been promoting it for around six weeks now – I was on Yorkshire Coast Radio with it – and I’ve had quite a number of people interested already, including a couple of people from Stockton. I’m talking with all of them about how exactly we want to run it.’

Steve masterminds all of this on top of his professional work with businesses so it would be fair to say he’s got quite a bit going on. Not that he has any intention of slowing down; he has big aspirations for Wheelchair Ambassadors. ‘There are no official numbers available,’ he explains, ‘but estimates suggest there are around a million wheelchair users in the UK. I might not get them all, but I want to get the numbers of people in the network into the tens of thousands. The challenge is to get to that first thousand people, then I think that once it gets momentum it could grow quite rapidly.’

To learn more about International Wheelchair Day and Wheelchair Ambassadors, visit www.wheelchairsteve.com or call 07834 760375.

Published in: November 2016

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