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Today in history… launch of UK’s ‘Motability’ scheme

12:00am | & Lifestyle

A scheme which has delivered freedom and independence to millions of disabled people was launched 40 years ago today, on July 25th, 1978.

The ‘Motability Scheme’ was launched at a special event at Earl’s Court, in London, during which the first 10 specially modified cars were handed over to their new owners. It had been announced eight months earlier and was administered by a new Motability charity set up to run the scheme.

The new initiative was established in co-operation with participating car manufacturers and allowed disable people to use their Mobility Allowance to lease a brand new car, specially modified to meet their individual needs. Initially it targeted new drivers aged 16 to 19, but there were ambitious plans to extend the scheme.

Prior to Motability, disabled people received very little help to get behind the wheel. Only those who could drive themselves received any government help, usually in the form of an “Invacar” – a blue three-wheel invalid carriage with a small petrol engine and fibreglass shell. All Invacars were owned by the government and leased to their drivers as part of their disability benefit, but they were basic, uncomfortable and able to carry just one person.

More than that, in 1976 they were found to be unsafe and the government began a five-year programme to phase them out. Instead it introduced the Mobility Allowance, which broke the mould by giving help to disabled people regardless of whether they could drive. It also gave people a choice in the form of a cash allowance, rather than imposing certain types of vehicle on them.

However, the allowance (initially £5 per week) was not enough to buy or run even the smallest car, so the government invited prominent lawyer and political advisor Lord Goodman to consider ways in which disabled people could use their allowance to afford a cr. He teamed up with businessman Jeffrey Sterling (now Lord Sterling) and together they came up with the Motability lease scheme.

It was set up as a charity so that it could fundraise and make grants, enabling it to provide customers with a complete mobility package even if their Mobility Allowance did not fully cover the type of car and modifications they needed.

For the first time, disabled people could afford a new, good-quality car from a participating manufacturer, modified to suit them. Their lease payment also covered insurance, servicing and breakdown assistance, boosted by an announcement that disabled drivers would be exempt from road tax from December 1978.

One of the first 10 people to receive a new Motability car at the Earl’s Court event 40 years ago today was Julie Newport, who was left disabled after suffering from polio. Receiving her keys from Lord Goodman, as first chairman of the Motability charity, she said of the scheme: “I think it’s marvellous!” She added that it gave disabled people the freedom and independence they really wanted, using good, reliable and safe vehicles which looked like anyone else’s.

Lord Goodman said he hoped more car manufacturers would back the scheme so that soon there would be no restriction on the type of car which could be leased in exchange for mobility benefits and, where appropriate, additional charges depending on personal circumstances. He was also confident that, once up and running, Motability could be opened up to all 125,000 disabled people in the UK, allowing them to lease a vehicle either as its driver or passenger.

The scheme did indeed ‘take off’ as more manufacturers got involved, innovative new vehicle modifications were developed and applications were opened up to disabled people of all ages. It proved extremely popular with people whose horizons were hugely widened by having a Motability vehicle at their disposal. Things which most people take for granted – getting to work, going shopping, visiting friends and family, going on holiday or attending appointments ­– were suddenly available to disabled people. For many users, Motability simply meant freedom.

Since its launch in 1978, Motability has provided more than three million cars, scooters and powered wheelchairs to disabled people, their families or carers. It currently has more than 650,000 customers and supplies more than 200,000 vehicles per year, with more than 450 models available from a wide range of manufacturers.

Before his death in 1995 at the age of 81, Lord Goodman described Motability as “the most successful achievement of my career and the most fortunate thought that ever came into my head.”

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