Host: Professor Colin Roberts, thank you so much for joining us. How are you?
Professor: Very well, thank you.
Host: Now you are the Chairman of Cornwall Mobility. How long as your involvement been there for?
Professor: I’ve been at Cornwall Mobility now for about eight years, ever since I came down from London and moved my base down to Cornwall. It’s been a pleasure to be associated with them. I’ve had a number of years working in and around the issue of disability and mobility. When I was in London, I set up the South London Disability Services Centre, so for many years, I’ve had hands on both in technology and the people who provide that technology. Coming down here to Cornwall, I was chuffed to be invited to become a Director-Trustee of Cornwall Mobility, and I’ve recently been appointed Chairman.
Host: And what is your role, I suppose, within Cornwall Mobility? What is your involvement?
Professor: I guess as chairman, it’s really a responsibility to make sure that we discharge our responsibilities as a charity because we are, at bottom line, a charity. Although we get many funds like people like the Department for Transport, we also provide charitable services to people in providing assessments and provision of their technology. So my role is to oversee that, but also to try and help to drive forward to meet the needs, and increasing needs, within Cornwall with people with mobility issues. I think it’s probably not widely understood by the general public, but we have not only an increasing aging population of which I am rapidly becoming one, but also an increasingly disabled aging population. Now, for a community that is largely rural, we’ve got a few concentrations obviously the main towns, but for the most part, it’s a distributed population. Mobility becomes a tremendously important thing for people in their homes and in their local communities, because if you are not mobile, you are really cut off from society at large. So mobility assistance, in whatever form it comes - it may be an artificial leg, it may be a wheelchair or a walking stick, is of vital importance. So we provide that service for the people of Cornwall and beyond.
Host: Now the main topic that we’re going to be talking about with you today is design of mobility aids. Now I believe there has been some stories reported over the last few weeks. Are you able to tell us a little bit more about them?
Professor: There have, yes. There was one which I think people saw both on television and on the papers where a gentleman and his mobility scooter fell into Garras Wharf in Truro. Now it was fortunate for him that the tide was out. It involved a tremendous amount of rescuers to get him out of that situation. Quite why he ended up there was still not clear, and I think the police investigation is still ongoing. Another report reported in the national press almost a week later suggested that an 86-year old who was demonstrating his mobility scooter to his daughter engaged it and he wasn’t sitting it, and it drove over him and he died from his injuries. So these devices are not failsafe. They can do enormous damage. I myself have seen people injured by mobility scooters or people being driven into. So there are whole design issues about whether the controls are adequate, whether people have had training - because if you are driving a car, which is a lethal device, you have to undergo training and you have to be tested in your ability to do it. I’m not suggesting we should put people through that quite extensive training, but people have to understand that mobility scooters can do people a great deal of damage, and Cornwall has seen a large number of instance over the last few years where people actually die from actually being hit by one, or themselves plowing into traffic. So there are design issues about the safety, there are design issues about the weight that they can contain. They need to be maintained. No one would think of driving their car on the road if it wasn’t maintained properly, yet mobility scooters don’t need to be maintained. We are currently trying to persuade our local MP Sarah Newton to take this matter up with the Department for Transport because the legislation that we have in place in the UK governing mobility scooters made like this dates from 1988. Well, the population has changed enormously since then, and I think we need to stand back and take a look at what we’re actually trying to provide. We at the moment are working hard with the University of Farmouth, which as you know, has a very strong ethos of design. We are trying to blend our needs and the needs of our clients and the people of Cornwall with the strengths of Farmouth to come up and make Cornwall a beacon for design and excellence in design in assistive technologies, of which mobility scooters are one.
Host: You mentioned earlier about mobility scooters, they’re not being maintained and training for them is limited. Why do you think that is the case?
Professor: I think, frankly, they are marketed very easily. They are marketed online, on the web. You can go into a shop and buy them, and the shop will sell you one. There are a number of shops around Cornwall, and I’m not going to name any of them, but there are one or two that I think are grossly irresponsible. They will just say, “yes, if you want that one, we’ll sell it to you, pack it up, give it in a box and there it is,” without introducing you properly to the way it works, without giving it any real assessment of your ability to drive it because there are issues about people’s perceptions, whether they can see where they are going - all of the things you would test when you are looking to drive a car are pushed to one side. Now there are other organizations. At Cornwall Mobility, we take a very ethical approach to supply any device like this. We will not do so unless we thorough assess the person’s ability to use it, we have thoroughly assessed their needs first and foremost, but subsequently have also made sure that the device that we provide them is maintained on a regular basis.
Host: Do you think this is something that can be achieved with somebody like Sarah Newton onboard and having that sort of strength to your argument in the cases that we’ve seen?
Professor: Yeah, I hope that it can. I think Sarah will give us the ability to try and influence central regulations, and I think that’s important because without some form of regulation, there is no requirement to do anything, and people can be killed. The police have started now to gather data of accidents where mobility scooters have been involved, but that’s at a very early stage. We suspect that the data will start to show an increasing number of accidents, not just in Cornwall but nationally. I think for the first time, we’re starting to move that moving forward, and I know how police locally are minded to do this. In fact, there is no compulsion on them to do it immediately.
Host: When it comes to design of these mobility aids, how much work goes into that?
Professor: If you look at some of them, you tend to think not very much indeed. They are churned out. A lot of them are made in the far-east for very little money at all, and I think that in some ways encapsulates one of the problems, because the amount of money that needs to be spent on the design process to get a really good product is very considerable. All of them have to be sold globally. This is not a unique market to the UK. It’s a global market, and costs are cut as far as possible, clearly. There has to be profit somewhere for everyone. I think that a lot of the facilities are poorly designed. You would have to look at some of the controls, the strength of plastics isn’t strong enough, some of the wheel bearings aren’t good enough. In this effort to bring the cost down, the marginalization of performance is on the increase. Now you can argue that they don’t need to last long because most people who use them don’t live very long, putting it in a crude term. But actually that’s not important. You need all the safety features. They need to work reliably. If they do, then when they are sold on as a second-hand product as inevitably many of them are, you as a customer if you buy that will have some assurance that it will last, and I think that’s of key importance.
Host: What advice would you give to somebody who is considering purchasing a mobility scooter?
Professor: Without being parochial, and I clearly have a vested interest here, I would say give us a call at Cornwall Mobility. We can advise. We aren’t a profit-making organization, so you will get our services at cost, and we often will reduce the cost to some of our items because of our ability as a charity to supplement that. So go to a reputable dealer. There are some in Cornwall. We can advise you where to go. If you can’t travel into Truro which is where we are based, we can certainly advise you of other dealers that we would consider adequate - people where you will get an assessment, where you will be sold something that is suitable for you. That’s the key. You can’t just go to a catalogue on a website or a playbook and choose one that will be perfect for you. It just won’t work.
Host: Absolutely. What’s the best way for people to contact Cornwall Mobility?
Professor: Probably the easiest and quickest way is to give us a telephone call. The number is 01872254920 and we’ll be pleased to help you.
Host: Well, Professor Colin Roberts, we really appreciate your time. Thank you very much indeed for joining us.
Professor: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.