I was twenty years old when I first began struggling with my mobility. My chronic illness, ME/CFS, was making it increasingly difficult to stand and walk for more than a few minutes at a time, with even the smallest amount of physical exertion leaving me struggling with pain and malaise for days afterwards.
It was only once I was reaching breaking point that I began to think about mobility aids. However, if I’d have known the positive impact they would have on my life and my condition management, I would have pursued them much sooner.
To begin with, I was able to source a transit wheelchair, and with the assistance of my friends and family who pushed it, found that I could leave the house much more frequently. Even though it wasn’t a perfect solution, I found I could participate much more actively in life than I used to, without the physical toll on my body being quite as debilitating as it was before.
Once I’d realised that mobility aids were something that could enhance my life in this way, I began to turn my thoughts towards more sophisticated solutions. In my head, I knew that I would love a power-chair. My personal needs meant that it didn’t have to be anything too high-tech or specialist, but I knew that having the autonomy to move about independently and not have to be assisted by somebody else could be a game-changer for me.
After spending some time considering my needs and my budget, I excitedly began to research the different brands and models of power-chair that were out there… and this is where the realisation hit me like a lead balloon. In every guide I read, every website I scrolled through, every little bit of promotional material I laid my eyes on, the very power-chairs I was interested in inherently seemed to be associated with elderly people.
Everywhere I looked, there were elderly people. Admittedly the elderly people used in such marketing material looked happy as anything with their mobility aids, but as a twenty-something year old, I was surprised at how horrified I felt by this turn of events. Fortunately I’ve grown up socially conscious enough to know that disability can affect any person, of any age and from any background, and up to this point I’d felt relatively confident and happy in my decision to invest in mobility aids. However, for the first time, I was confronted head-on with the archaic attitude that wheelchairs and power-chairs are something exclusively for the elderly, rather than for people like me.
As a result of all this, I found myself questioning whether this purchase was really something I wanted to go ahead with. Would becoming a power-chair user as a young adult actually be something really abnormal? Would I face stigma for it? Would people judge this invisibly ill young adult old for using a mobility aid that was so clearly intended for somebody forty-plus years their senior?
My research continued. Everywhere I looked, I found more and more evidence of this internalised belief that mobility aids were for the elderly population. The way they were marketed implied that they were there to support those approaching their twilight years… when really, what we all know now is that the role of such aids and equipment is far more diverse than this.
In my head, the purchase of my power-chair wouldn’t simply represent an ‘end’ point, or an admission of defeat. My power-chair would actually open up so many avenues for me, enabling me to live a fuller and happier life than the one I was leading at the moment. As such, what I wanted more than anything was to see people like me reflected in the marketing of mobility aids. I wanted to see people of all ages and backgrounds going about their daily life, who happened to use a power-chair. Was that really that absurd of an idea?
Funnily enough, it was social media that plugged this gap for me. It was seeing friends and peers in the chronic illness community, people of more similar ages and with more similar lifestyles to me, using their mobility aids with style and grace that reinforced the fact that they aren’t just for elderly people. The online world and the chronically ill role models within it went some way in healing the wounds that this selective marketing had left on me: and ever since the day my own power-chair arrived, I’ve aspired to do the same for other young people who may find themselves in a similar situation in the future. Nobody should feel afraid of or unentitled to something which could radically improve their quality of life.
The chronic illness community is doing what it can to normalise the use of mobility aids and the diverse range of people who can benefit from them, but moving forward, I think mobility brands and organisations have a responsibility to ensure their marketing strategies are more inclusive. I want to see more than the same stock photo-esque imagery of elderly people using wheelchairs and power-chairs and emphasising the medical element of doing so. I want to see more adults and young adults living their best lives, with their mobility aids reflected in a much more positive and empowering way.
In my opinion, it just makes good business sense for brands in the disability sector to think about diversity and inclusion within their marketing strategy. Being able to see yourself reflected in a brand’s ethos leaves you with a much more positive perception of that organisation… and take it from me, those perceptions highly increase the likelihood of a person becoming a future customer of theirs.
Diversifying the marketing of mobility aids normalises their use in everyday life, challenges harmful perceptions of disability and long-term illness, and allows brands to reach a larger range of potential consumers. Everybody wins!
As such, I hope and wait with bated breath to see whether mobility brands will be receptive to the experiences of myself and so many other young people going forward. I have everything crossed for a more inclusive future, and it starts right here.