Equipment for people with disabilities

Having the right equipment and aids can be important to independent living. Some may be related to a particular health need, others to assist you with particular tasks.

Equipment from the Health Service (HSC)

Your doctor can prescribe certain items from an approved list. Some items can be provided through the district nurse; this will usually require an assessment and recommendation by a nurse or therapist. Items include:

  • elastic stockings
  • appliances for colostomies
  • some types of trusses or wound dressings
  • urinary catheters
  • pressure relieving cushions and mattresses
  • continence pads

Other health equipment available includes:

  • wheelchairs and walking aids
  • hearing and vision aids
  • artificial limbs and surgical appliances
  • communication aids

Your doctor can also refer you to specialist services for other kinds of health equipment. You can also approach these specialist services directly.

Equipment from social services

Equipment that can make it easier to manage at home is usually provided by your local trust, following an assessment by an occupational therapist.

Equipment can help with preparing food or managing personal care. For example, kettle tippers or tap turners can help in the kitchen. Furniture raisers can be used to raise the height of chairs and beds to make getting up easier. Bath seats, raised toilet seats or hoists can help in the bathroom.

Adaptations can be made to your home, such as attaching handrails, changing the position of light switches or sockets, or door entry systems.

Assistance and guide dogs

Guide Dogs for the Blind Association provides assistance dogs for people with disability. Some dogs are trained specifically to help with certain tasks.

Dogs for blind or visually impaired people

Assistance dogs are not suitable for everyone. Whether an assistance dog would be suitable for you must be decided taking your individual circumstances into account.

Assistance dogs need to be looked after, groomed, fed, exercised and taken to the vet just like any other dog. For many people assistance dogs have brought a great deal of independence and confidence, as well as companionship into their lives.

The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association provides training and support for people with sight loss who would like to have a guide dog.

To become a guide dog owner, you must be 16 or over, resident in the UK and have a significant visual loss which may be alongside other disabilities.

You must also be able to use and care for the dog.

Dogs for deaf or hearing impaired people

Hearing Dogs for Deaf People train dogs to alert the deaf person to sounds they are unable to hear such as alarm clocks, babies crying, smoke alarms and many others sounds.

To become a hearing dog owner, you must be severely hard of hearing or profoundly deaf and be over 18 years old. You must also be able to care for the dog.

Other assistance dogs

Some charities train dogs to assist and support people with a particular disability. Disability assistance dogs can be trained to do many things. Examples include:

  • fetching items
  • operating control buttons
  • switching lights on and off
  • opening and closing doors
  • loading and unloading the washing machine
  • helping with shopping
  • assisting with dressing and undressing
  • summoning help if necessary

Dogs can also be trained in other ways, for example, to alert owners of an imminent epileptic seizure.

Wheelchair Service

If you need a wheelchair, the Department of Health's Wheelchair Service may provide one.

Wheelchairs can be manual or powered; there are four different types of powered wheelchair and you will be assessed to make sure your needs are met.

The Department of Health's Wheelchair Services are provided by the Regional Disablement Centre at Musgrave Park. Services are also provided by local assessment centres within the health care trusts in Londonderry, Enniskillen, Armagh, Newry and Antrim. An assessment of your needs is carried out by an occupational therapist who will recommend the wheelchair that best meets your needs.

Basic process for wheelchair provision:

  • you are referred to an Occupational Therapist within your health care trust
  • an assessment of your needs will take place
  • the wheelchair, and training in its use, is provided by either the local centre or the Regional Disablement Centre
  • a maintenance and repair plan(s) is arranged

Wheelchairs can be manual or powered and may be provided with accessories such as cushions, armrests and trays.

Referrals and assessments

Referrals

You will be referred by a hospital, doctor, consultant or occupational therapist.

Consideration will be given to the nature and level of your disability and/or medical condition, your lifestyle and needs, where and when you will use the wheelchair and your ability to use a particular type of wheelchair.

Sometimes more than one type of wheelchair may be required.

Assessments

Assessments are normally carried out at the Regional Disablement Centre, or at a local assessment centre or at the clients’ own home. The person doing the assessment will be a professional person who is qualified in wheelchair assessments - for example, an occupational therapist.

Occasionally, a hospital consultant or doctor may prescribe a wheelchair.

The process may also involve a rehabilitation engineer who will make any adjustments or add features and fixtures such as special postural seating.

Where necessary, a specialist team can provide assessments for equipment for people with severe physical disabilities who cannot use standard wheelchairs and/or controls.

The assessment may include other professionals across health, education and social services.

This is especially important if the wheelchair is for a child who will have development needs. All the situations in which a wheelchair may be used - such as at school, using transport and social activities - will be part of the assessment. Parents and carers should also be part of the process and their opinions and views will be considered.

Ask your local social services if you need help with transport.

Re-assessment of your needs

When a person's needs change, a review may be carried out. This may include, for example, changing from a manual to a powered wheelchair.

Receiving your wheelchair, maintenance and repair

Timescales in which your wheelchair will be delivered can vary depending on the type of wheelchair provided and local resources.

It may be from 'standard stock', ordered from a supplier, or 'bespoke' (made to measure). For a bespoke wheelchair, you may have to wait up to a maximum of 18 weeks.

When it's ready, there is a formal handover of the wheelchair which could either be at the Regional Disablement Centre or local clinic or at your home (or where you are living). This should involve:

  • showing you how to use the wheelchair including safety issues
  • providing you with relevant documents and a point of contact for future enquiries
  • information about insurance (only applicable to electric outdoor wheelchairs) and arranging repairs/maintenance - and who is responsible for this

If you move

If you move to a different area, the wheelchair should go with you. Depending on what type of agreement you have, the new Wheelchair Service may take over the future maintenance of equipment. Minor repairs can often be done at your home.

Types of powered wheelchair

Indoor and outdoor powered wheelchairs are for use by people with disabilities who cannot propel a manual wheelchair.

There are criteria for using some types of electric wheelchair, for example, meeting DVLA eye test requirements for road use, or the need for an attendant to go to a wheelchair clinic/centre along with the user.

'Attendant' means someone who helps push a manual wheelchair or controls a powered wheelchair on someone else's behalf.

There are two types of powered wheelchair offered because a user cannot propel or use a manual wheelchair:

  • Electric Indoor Chair (EPIC)
  • Electrically Powered Indoor/Outdoor Chair (EPOIC)

Highway regulations group outdoor powered wheelchairs into two categories, Class 2 and Class 3:

  • Class 2 wheelchairs must have a maximum speed of 4mph (6.4kph) and are for pavement use only

Rules 36-46 of the Highway Code cover powered wheelchairs and mobility scooters.

Wheelchairs - hiring or buying a wheelchair

Find out where can you buy or hire a wheelchair in Northern Ireland.

Charities and other organisations

Temporary, holiday and short term loan wheelchairs are provided by the British Red Cross, Shopmobility and Disability Action.

Disability Action also provides advice in areas such as aids and equipment, holiday travel, housing issues, community care, disability legislation, mobility and motability.

Employment - the Access to Work programme

Where wheelchairs are required for specific work purposes they may be funded through the Department for the Economy's Access to Work programme.

New or existing wheelchair users may be referred to this programme either from existing statutory providers or via the Access to work advisor in local Social Security / Jobs & Benefits offices.

Commercial companies

There are many companies that hire and sell mobility products - often with someone coming to your home to demonstrate products to you. These can be found by searching online, in disability magazines or in the phonebook.  

Independent advice

If you decide to buy your own wheelchair, make sure you get some advice beforehand. Take your time to shop around and try different models - this way you can make sure that you get a wheelchair you feel comfortable with.

The Disabled Living Foundation has published some useful advice which you can download from its website.

Limbs, prosthetics and surgical appliances

You can get artificial limbs and surgical appliances and have them maintained and repaired for free on the Health Service.

Artificial limbs and prosthetics

Your hospital consultant will refer you to the Limb Fitting Centre at Musgrave Park Hospital.

Each limb needs to be individually made and fitted for each patient and there is a need for expert clinical supervision of the entire surgical, fitting and support process. You should also receive training on how to use your artificial limb.

Surgical appliances

If you need a surgical appliance, your doctor will refer you to a healthcare professional who can supply or prescribe an appliance to meet your needs.

Some examples of surgical appliances are:

  • elastic hosiery
  • trusses
  • leg appliances and surgical footwear
  • abdominal and spinal supports
  • surgical brassieres
  • artificial breasts
  • arm, neck and head appliances
  • wigs 

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