The next frontier was the power wheelchair. (Power chairs are no longer referred to as “electric chairs,” for obvious reasons.) Like manual chairs, power chairs have come a long way since the first models. Early power chairs were typically bulky affairs, essentially a manual chair with a motor, batteries, and drive mechanism added on. Slow, clumsy to handle, challenged by hills, and difficult or impossible to transport in a car, they could be severely limiting, although they provided more mobility to those unable to push a manual chair.
Today’s power chairs have been redesigned from the ground up fully integrated, smooth, powerful, and loaded with options that allow people with more severe disabilities to be more active than ever before possible.
spine and sit bones, crucial for power chair users who are unable to lift themselves with their arms. The seat and footrests can also be tilted and elevated. It is even possible to be raised to a standing position in some of their models. The design includes shock absorbers and front-wheel direct drive.
The continuing evolution of the wheelchair
Wheelchair producers have proliferated in recent years. Not even Quickie holds a monopoly such as the one formerly enjoyed by Everest & Jennings. Companies such as Colours, Permobil, Otto Bock, and Invacare are only a few of the more widely recognized providers of a lightweight wheelchair. All these companies must work harder and at a faster pace at development and innovation to maintain their share of the market.
Wheelchairs have gotten much more complex. Many chairs now use an adjustable plate for the wheels; this allows adjustment of the axle position in relation to the frame, both vertically and horizontally. The height and angle of the front casters can be customized, as well as the height of the back, and sometimes the angle of the seat pan. Thanks to the immense recent evolution in design and manufacture, there is a chair out there that can accommodate your particular physical condition in a way that offers you a level of activity and independence that is unique in our human history. Even people with what would be considered severe disabilities can participate in ways that were previously impossible.
At the same time, certain niches have appeared, such as athletic chairs for racing, rugby, and tennis. Then there’s the unique Iron Horse chair, whose advertisements show someone waist-deep in a river while fly-fishing from his wheelchair. More than ever there are small companies offering specialized designs, or offering what they believe to be the next great innovation in chair design.
The tradition of necessity as the mother of invention continues. The Falcon High Rider was developed by Tom Houston, a pipe fitter who wanted to get back to the work he had always done. He wanted a chair he could still drive in a standing position, and could get through tight spaces. Similarly, the OmegaTrac from Teftec was developed by a father and son engineering team for the quadriplegic son who needed to traverse rough terrain.
Ralf Hotchkiss, an engineer and paraplegic chair user, took an entirely different approach when he set out to build his own chair. Hotchkiss not only wanted a better chair, but was concerned about the high prices and maintenance problems of commercial wheelchairs. He also wanted to focus on third-world countries, where thousands of people are trapped without mobility. Hotchkiss joined with others to develop the Whirlwind chair, which can be made with local materials found in poor countries for vastly less money than it takes to buy an American chair. The design is truly collaborative; many people contributed ideas for such details as wheel bearings and frame components. Now head of the Wheeled Mobility Center at San Francisco State University, and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, Hotchkiss and company have traveled around the world, training hundreds of people and helping them set up shops to produce the Whirlwind chair locally.
There are some concerns about the future progress of the wheelchair industry. As with the computer software and automotive industries, wheelchair production is concentrating into the hands of a few large producers, with an array of specialty products from smaller companies.
Large companies like Quickie and Invacare have become purchasers of wheelchair technology. Small producers, who tend to push the limits and test the boundaries of wheelchair design and development, often find it makes more business sense to sell their Karl Ylonen of Care Corporation in Vancouver, Washington, has mixed feelings about this trend. He has been selling wheelchairs for more than ten years and is concerned that the industry “is concentrating on big suppliers and it might limit innovation. I feel a responsibility to give my clients a choice, and I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket. We need small as well as large producers.”
Karl Ylonen of Care Corporation in Vancouver, Washington, has mixed feelings about this trend. He has been selling wheelchairs for more than ten years and is concerned that the industry “is concentrating on big suppliers and it might limit innovation. I feel a responsibility to give my clients a choice, and I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket. We need small as well as large producers.”
One hopes that the wheelchair industry will not forget the tough lesson learned by Everest & Jennings, who lost so much business to the small upstart of Quickie. (Some fear that now even Quickie is resting on its laurels.) Then again, one could say that E & J so horribly ignored the obvious need for streamlined design and the use of new materials that they left the door open for someone to do exactly what Marilyn Hamilton and her team did at Quickie. It’s hard to imagine a company repeating that mistake much less monopolizing the market in this new competitive environment.