While power wheelchairs are a lifeline for people with mobility challenges, they’re often a significant investment. With costs ranging from $1,000 to $15,000 for higher-end wheelchairs and approximately 3 million individuals using a power wheelchair in the United States, you’d expect a thriving subset of businesses dedicated to the maintenance and repair of these power wheelchairs.
That’s not the case.
A recent Kaiser Health News article detailed the obstacles that individuals face when maintenance or repairs are required for electric wheelchairs. Turning to the supplier for repairs can take months, leaving individuals with no option for mobility and a lesser quality of life.
Robin Bolduc spoke to KHN about her husband, a power wheelchair user, and the challenges they’ve experienced.
“There’s a quality-of-life issue,” she said. “He could be lying in bed staring at the ceiling. He has no movement without his wheelchair.”
The wheelchair market is dominated by two national suppliers – Numotion and National Seating and Mobility – both owned by private equity firms looking to increase their bottom line by limiting investment in technicians and repairs. Furthermore, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) restricts copyrighted material from being used against the will of its owner and states that using a tool to bypass “access control” can result in felony charges, prison time or a hefty fine. That means that wheelchair owners, or their handy friends or family members, are not allowed to make even simple fixes to the wheelchair. Medicare only covers indoor wheelchairs and does not cover preventive wheelchair maintenance. These compounding issues create a sticky situation when an electric wheelchair breaks.
Wheelchair owners, or their handy friends or family members, are not allowed to make even simple fixes to the wheelchair.
On a lesser scale, wheelchair users who attempt home fixes may void their warranty or lose out on insurance payments for repairs. This prevents power wheelchair users from attempting repairs themselves or outsourcing maintenance or repairs to an independent technician. And manual wheelchairs may not be a convenient or accessible option for many seniors who use power wheelchairs.
Thanks to a vocal coalition of wheelchair users and advocates, some states are considering the removal of this roadblock. Most recently, the Colorado legislature passed a “right to repair” bill for power wheelchairs that will allow owners and independent repair shops to access parts, embedded software, tools and documentation needed to perform diagnostic, maintenance or repair services. Massachusetts and Pennsylvania are also considering bills that address wheelchair repairs.
A focus on preventive wheelchair maintenance
Whether you live in a “right to repair” state or not, a focus on preventive maintenance can prevent wheelchair downtime. Preventive maintenance is perfectly legal and can help lengthen the life of a power wheelchair. Some examples of preventive maintenance are below:
- Wipe down the wheelchair on a regular basis.
- Check wheels and casters for cracks, punctures and excessive wear and tear.
- Check that wheels pivot and rotate freely.
- Check tire air pressure and adjust as needed.
- Check manual break releases.
- Tighten (but do not over-tighten!) nuts and bolts.
- Check all charger cords and connectors for loose connections, damaged cables or signs of electrical damage.
- Inspect for wear and tear.
- Tighten hardware such as headrest and seating components.
- Proactively replace batteries.
- Listen to the motor and become familiar with the healthy sound of the wheelchair when it is working properly.
Experts also recommend that wheelchair users always lock the brakes before getting in and out of the wheelchair and turn off power before transferring. Users should always keep any protective plastic covers (or shrouds) in place to prevent dirt and grime from getting into electrical components. Also, consider carrying a gallon-sized plastic bag to cover the joystick and controller if it rains to prevent moisture accumulation.
Professional service for wheelchairs
Making time and the investment for power wheelchairs to be professionally serviced once a year will extend the life of the wheelchair and may catch issues when they’re more easily resolved. In places with inclement weather conditions, experts recommend a professional service twice a year.
While preventive maintenance cannot fix every issue, it’s a nice way to safeguard and prolong the life of your senior’s power wheelchair and be cognizant of issues as they arise.