A new report from U.S. PIRG Education Fund found that the constrained market for wheelchair service and repair in the U.S. makes long delays—of weeks or even months—common. The report, “Stranded,” details how delays in wheelchair repair imposes a burden on peoples mobility as well as financial security.
“It is simply outrageous how hard it is to get your wheelchair fixed,” says independent technology journalist Paul Roberts, who wrote the report for U.S. PIRG Education Fund. “I heard story after story researching this report about waits of weeks and months for simple repairs that disrupted people’s lives and their work. I also heard from wheelchair users about serious health complications from extended downtime waiting for repairs. This system isn’t just inconvenient, it’s dangerous.”
Colorado Governor Jared Polis recently signed the landmark HB22-1031, Consumer Right To Repair Powered Wheelchairs, which requires manufacturers of powered wheelchairs to provide access to parts, tools and information necessary to repair wheelchairs to owners and independent technicians. Colorado’s bill is the first Right to Repair measure to reach a governor’s desk in a decade — since the first automobile Right to Repair law passed in Massachusetts in 2012. U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s new report, “Stranded,” looks into the problems that gave rise to the proposed law and what impact Colorado’s new policy will have. The report also weighs the question of whether other states—or the federal government—should pursue similar measures to protect wheelchair users.
As part of its investigation, U.S. PIRG Education Fund surveyed 141 wheelchair users about their experiences with repairs. Nearly two-thirds of respondents (87 of 141) say the average repair takes four or more weeks to complete, and more than a third (40%) said it takes seven or more weeks. This is concerning since it was also observed that 68% of respondents needed two or more repairs in the last year.
“If non-disabled people had to wait weeks or months to get their vehicles worked on, there would be protests in the street,” one respondent noted.
“Stranded” found several contributing factors to the long wait times. The first is a heavily constrained market for manual and power wheelchair service and repair leaves wheelchair users with few choices among vendors. Sixty-five percent of respondents described their CRT supplier as “Part of a large, national provider of wheelchairs and medical equipment” and more than half of respondents used just two national suppliers of Complex Rehabilitation Technology (CRT): Numotion and National Seating and Mobility.
Another complication was a lack of user access to software, parts and tools needed to configure and service wheelchairs. This makes the market for wheelchair service and repair similar to other product markets (cell phones, tractors, etc.) where Right to Repair reforms have gained steam. Finally, outdated billing practices as well as public and private insurance bureaucracies add significantly to the delays.
“It’s easy for big companies to claim that only their technicians should do any repair, no matter how minor. They aren’t the ones in the broken chair, waiting months for a fix,” says Nathan Proctor, U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s senior Right to Repair campaign director, who contributed to the report. “We heard story after story from wheelchair users about the hours they spend on the phone just trying to get repair technicians to visit their home, or how they have been forced to work around restrictions to do repairs themselves out of necessity.”
Julie Reiskin, the executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, says that the typical wheelchair user in her state faces long waits for service and has few options, even if their medical condition demands prompt response. While her group has successfully intervened in cases such as Howey’s to urge suppliers to cut wait times, “The average person calling (their approved provider) does not get a response,” she said. “You have to go up to the person running it, which isn’t sustainable,” Reiskin said. “We are relieved and grateful to have passed Right to Repair for our members in Colorado, and we hope to keep advancing reforms that cut repair delays.”
Other findings in the report include:
Poor service by CRT suppliers and long waits are a theme in dozens of lawsuits filed across the country on behalf of wheelchair users who were injured, or even killed when their chairs failed.
- Both the CRT vendors and disability advocates agree that outdated billing procedures and costly bureaucracy around repair claims add to delays and that the process must be streamlined.
- When asked “As a wheelchair user, I would benefit from more choices for having my wheelchair serviced and repaired, including the option to repair it myself,” and given a range from “1 – Strongly disagree” to “5 – Strongly agree,” 70% selected 5 – Strongly agree, with a total average of 4.5.
- When asked if a measure like Colorado law would improve their lives and experience of wheelchair repair, 83% responded that it would.