Dilemma for disabled drivers as “very few” EV charging points are wheelchair accessible

At a motorway service station near Stansted, bollards and high curbs separate electric vehicle (EV) charging points from their parking bays.

There is little space surrounding the bays, nor is there a drop curb within easy reach.

To many passers by, nothing seems wrong. As the 2030 ban on sales of new petrol, diesel and hybrid vehicles looms, as does a growing threat of environmental disaster, charging infrastructure has become more commonplace than ever before.

But to disabled drivers looking for somewhere to fill up, these things present significant obstructions.

In the race to electrify Britain’s motoring network, disabled drivers, and disabled people who rely on others who drive, are at risk of being left behind.

A report published in August by disability charities Designability and Motability found “very few” accessible charging points currently exist in the UK.

The main issues, according to the User Engagement Report, involve a lack of space. In regular bays, drivers cannot get out of their cars to use the chargers. Many others however are built on high curbs, or have controls which are too high up to use, or cables too heavy to haul across a vehicle.

According to Motability, by 2035 up to 1.35million disabled people will be reliant on public charging infrastructure that has not been designed with their needs in mind.

Kevin Ogilvie, a wheelchair user who commutes into Essex for work, said: “It’s quite difficult to either park into a bay where there are normal car park spaces, because there’s not enough room for me to obviously open my door, to get round the back of the car.”

Mr Ogilvie became injured in 2012 after a vehicle he was driving hit an explosive device while serving with the RAF Regiment in Afghanistan. He is now a support coordinator at the Spinal Injuries Association.

A few months ago he made the move from diesel to plug-in hybrid, which he says is already “not great” given its importance for his work. In addition to problems of space and height, the limited range of electric vehicles is stopping him going fully electric.

The fear of running out of charge mid-journey and becoming stranded, experienced by able-bodied drivers, has an even greater effect on people with disabilities because of the lack of suitable charging stations.

“With my job I definitely couldn’t do fully electric cars,” he continued.

“I was down in Basildon the other day and there was no way I could do that in an electric car.

“It needs to at least be a hybrid and even then I still use up most of my tank of fuel getting there and back.

“It will make a massive difference as to what I can do especially if it requires, that I go fully electric, because obviously the range of them is not great at the moment.”

In November 2020, Boris Johnson announced £1.3billion would be spent on EV charging infrastructure to meet the 2030 deadline.

But despite orders coming from the top, the process of granting planning permission for new charging points appears to lack a consistent, centralised direction, which could be contributing to an oversight on disability.

For example, Designability’s report found the cost per unit for electricity changed between different areas, local authorities and providers, adding more confusion and therefore more barriers to potential drivers of electric vehicles.

What have Essex councils done for inclusivity at EV charging points?

At a planning committee meeting on September 8, Basildon Council granted permission for 45 new charging points in Great Oaks multi storey car park, with provision for a further 45 in the future.

Whether these charging points would be wheelchair accessible was not mentioned by councillors, officers or members of the public, although the council did say it will be refurbishing the lift in Great Oaks car park.

Essex County Council is recruiting for a new position to develop a county-wide EV strategy. It says this will help with accessibility.

A county council spokesperson said: “The issue of EV provision for individuals with disabilities and the general public is an issue that ECC is aware of.

“We are currently recruiting for a new position to look at the development of an EV strategy which would encompass access to chargers, driveways and parking standards as part of their remit so that we can start to develop the infrastructure that we need across the county.

“As part of this we would work with local access groups and residents to understand the issues which concern them.”

Catching up

Mr Ogilvie remains optimistic about the future.

He said: “Eventually they’ll catch up and it’ll be more inclusive.

“It happens with other things quite regularly. Because I’ve only been in a wheelchair since 2012, technology has come on with various different things and you can tell things like phones are more accessible for disabled people. iPhones you can now do everything via voice control.

“It’s mostly just the improvements in technology. They’ll come along, I’ve got no doubt about it.”

Rapid advancements in technology, wider strategies from local authorities and guidance from charities may prevent people with disabilities from being “left behind” by green policies.

But until then, for many disabled drivers keen to make the switch to fully electric but yet unable to do so, it might be a long wait.

Charlie Ridler

Local Democracy Reporter