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24 Sept 2022

Grandad sick of waiting on planes for help for disabled wife invents carry-on wheelchair now on sale despite her branding early version “c**p!”

Grandad sick of waiting on planes for help for disabled wife invents carry-on wheelchair now on sale despite her branding early version “c**p!”

A grandad who was sick of waiting on planes for assistance for his disabled wife has used his expertise as a trained chartered engineer to design a carry-on transit wheelchair which is now being made commercially despite her saying his early version  was “c**p!”

Management consultant Richard Williams, 63, was spurred into action after a fabulous holiday in Malaysia with his wife Jane, 64, who has cerebral palsy – a lifelong condition affecting movement and co-ordination – ended badly when they were left on a deserted plane at the UK airport waiting for help.

Recalling their experience in the early morning on March 1, 2019, Richard, of Belper, Derbyshire, said: “Winter sun is good for Jane, so we’d headed off to Malaysia and come back on the overnight 13-hour flight.

“Like any of the other passengers, at 5.30am you’re just ready to get home. But we were stuck on the plane for 45 minutes – just us and another man in first class waiting for assistance.”

Richard added: “While we waited, the crew couldn’t get off. The cleaners couldn’t come on. We were all just waiting.

“Eventually, I was so fed up I got off the plane, had a look around the airport and found an abandoned wheelchair. I got back on and helped Jane off the plane myself.

“We’d had a cracking trip, but it was soured. I realised then that it shouldn’t be so difficult. I knew I’d had enough and had to do something about it.”

Richard’s recollections tally with a new Civil Aviation Authority report telling airports to address “unacceptable” failings affecting disabled people and warning it could use legal enforcement powers if they continue.

Reporting “significant service failings,” it cites incidents where passengers needing assistance have been taken off a plane hours after other people.

Meanwhile, married for 40 years, Richard and Jane, a former nursing assistant for people with disabilities, who have two adult children and a grandchild, say they have been dealing with this issue for decades.

They love to travel, but Jane’s disability – which occurred after she was starved of oxygen when she was born well after her twin sister – means she can only walk short distances, can struggle to communicate clearly and tires easily.

Despite these challenges, they have explored Europe, South East Asia, Australia and America together.

But the 2019 airport delays finally spurred Richard into action as he became determined to design his wife a special carry-on wheelchair.

Armed with a successful protype earlier on this year he took his product to market, calling it the Traveller Chair – a combined wheelchair, walker and travel case.

Richard said: “I built the first version on the patio at home.

“I asked Jane to sit in it and give me her honest opinion and she said, ‘It’s absolutely cr*p!’”

He added: “I’d not invented a product personally before, but I’m a chartered engineer and have been working in management for the manufacturing industry for years, so I’ve always looked for solutions to overcome problems.

“So, I just kept thinking back over the problems we’d face in airports and how to solve them.

“I kept going through several iterations. It’s not rocket science, but it is an ingenious mechanism, getting a chair to fold down into carry-on size. The whole point is for you to be able to carry it on to a plane, so there would be no need to wait for assistance getting off.

“The Traveller Chair is also a piece of luggage with a 17-litre capacity for your bits and bobs.”

Richard added: “It’s robust, manoeuvrable and can take a body weight of up to 16st.

“It also has a lap band for the user that doubles as a shoulder strap, so it can be carried around when not in use.

“When folded down, which takes less than a minute, it’s a transit wheelchair or a walker.

“When you’re safely on the plane and in your seat, it just pops in the overhead locker. That means it sits above your head and you’re confident that you can carry on with your journey after the plane’s wheels hit the floor.”

Richard is keen to stress that the chair cannot be used by anyone paraplegic or for long term use, it is designed for people like Jane with restricted mobility.

But he hopes that his invention will be useful in bringing back dignity in air travel for people like his wife.

With the  product now fully developed, tested and on sale for £449, the couple were delighted to use it themselves on their recent first post-Covid trip to the Spanish island of Menorca.

Richard said: “We didn’t need airport assistance this end or that end. It was fantastic and really took the stress out of the trip.”

While his invention means Richard is able to disembark with Jane without needing airport assistance, it also means they no longer have to arrive for flights six hours before take off, as they used to, in order to allow time for special help.

He said: “The challenging experience of travelling through an airport with someone with restricted mobility begins from the moment you’re parking the car.

“You get dropped off roads away from the actual airport. You’ve then got to queue to see a person at the desk who’ll often tell you wheelchair assistance is at the extremity of the building.

“If you ask for help getting there you face a wait for that.”

He added: “You are then given a wheelchair. Sometimes, as an accompanying passenger, you’re asked to push them. Other times, one of the staff will push the chair.

“So, you either get pushed to the gate or you go on your own. You’re then left without the chair in a nearby café and told the assistance will come back 20 minutes before boarding.

“Often, it doesn’t show-up or is late and if there’s a gate change at the last minute, it’s really stressful.

“For Jane and others like her, it can be a physically painful experience. She’s been in tears in airports because of the pain, or because of having to be dragged along by me.”

Richard added: “We’ve been let down so many times. Sometimes the care is great, others it’s awful. It’s down to a roll of the dice.

“With the Traveller Chair there’s none of that uncertainty.”

Jane is delighted with her husband’s ingenious invention.

She said: “I’ve had cerebral palsy from birth, but I’ve always been determined not to let it infringe upon my life. I wanted children, I had two. I wanted to lead as normal a life as possible and I’ve done that.”

Jane added: “It’s driven me on. But I can do less and less these days. I find walking long distances very tiring and I’m prone to falls.

“Sometimes travelling is very difficult. We’ve had times when we’ve waited for assistance. Other times, I’ve been put on the golf buggy and Richard has had to walk, meaning we’re separated in a foreign country.

“I like to look in duty free. There are some fantastic shops in different airports but with special assistance they just take you from A to B.

“Thanks to the Traveller Chair, our recent holiday was fantastic.”

Jane added: “My husband has invented this for me, but I know it will help other people who have mobility troubles.

“I use it as both a walker and a chair and on holiday, it was like having my legs back fully functioning.”

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