A COUNCILLOR who led a campaign to improve conditions for disabled people has had a taste of what life is really like in a wheelchair – after injuring himself in a freak accident.
And Carl Etholen says his first-hand experience supports his belief that more has to be done by society to raise standards of accessibility for people with mobility problems.
Cllr Etholen, 58, was Chairman until recently of both Buckinghamshire County Council and the Buckinghamshire Legacy Board.
As Legacy chief, he actively campaigned for organisations to raise the bar across the county and adopt the ‘Stoke Mandeville Standard’ of accessibility and inclusivity for disabled people.
But he admits this still didn’t totally prepare him for the difficulties of life in a wheelchair which became a reality when he tripped over his German Shepherd/Labrador dog in a field and slipped on wet grass.
"Having fractured my left foot in four places on May 21, I was reliant on two crutches to be mobile," he said.
"Being fairly tall at 6ft 8ins, standard hospital issue ones are too short for me. As a result, someone very kindly lent me a wheelchair which was self-propelling.
"For nearly one month, I experienced what being a wheelchair user is all about.
"I am not for a moment pretending to know what it’s really like to be a disabled person, but this has given me a new perspective on the difficulties experienced day in and day out by wheelchair users. I can use this in my new health and wellbeing role at the County Council."
Cllr Etholen's first difficulty was in getting to meetings at County Hall in Aylesbury without the aid of his car.
"I considered catching a train, but carried out research to find that although there is a lot in place for disabled travellers, you normally need to give 24 hours’ notice to get assistance at manned stations.
"I lead a busy life as a constituency councillor and run a business, so sometimes I just can’t predict in advance where I need to get to. My local station, Saunderton, isn’t manned and I wouldn’t be able to get onto a train with a wheelchair because there is no lift and I would struggle to get over the bridge.
"I looked at bus travel as an alternative but this is fraught with issues as buses need either a ramp or tail lift or a low floor. Advance notice again needs to be given for some buses where the seats are removed to accommodate a wheelchair."
He added: "I must stress that both the bus and train companies provide a great service, so I am not being critical, but the reality was that where I live in Saunderton, it was almost impossible for me to take public transport in a wheelchair."
Cllr Etholen, now County Council deputy cabinet member for Health and Wellbeing, found most buildings are catering more and more for wheelchair users, with newer ones having built-in ramps and some older buildings having temporary ramps.
He said: "I did find that even with ramps in place, the threshold proved to be an obstacle as the wheelchair had very small wheels on the front, so the only way that I could traverse this was either to go in backwards or if there was someone to assist, with the wheelchair being tilted backwards lifting these wheels over this."
Cllr Etholen, now well on the road to recovery, added: "I really now appreciate how it is to be a wheelchair user. We as society should be better educated to cater for people who do not have the best mobility.
"Some work has been done to improve access for wheelchair users nationally and locally, but more needs to be done."