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The Steep Cost of Tech Products for Mobility

Technology helps people in wheelchairs stay mobile, but it doesn't come cheap


(This article appeared previously on the website Tech50+.)

According to the website Pants Up Easy, which tracks disabilities, some 3.6 million Americans over the age of 15 use a wheelchair for mobility. Perhaps that seems kind of low, but it doesn’t include all of the folks using a cane, crutches or a walker (11.6 million). Overall, 20 percent of women in the United States have disabilities, and 17 percent of all men. Those are staggering numbers that will only go higher as boomers age. Earlier this year, I became disabled as a result of cascading medical problems.

The disabled population pays a huge price — one which American society largely ignores. Let’s start off with medical devices from stairlifts to wheelchairs, from ramps to commodes. Some of these are covered either by private insurance or Medicare Part B, but many are not. You will need a doctor’s prescription and a prior authorization, which will only be granted if the device is deemed a medical necessity. Many of the electric-powered personal-mobility devices, such as scooters, are not approved medical devices.

Some of the most technologically advanced mobility devices come from California-based Whill. They make two four-wheel-drive versions: the Model M and the Model A. The Model M is an FDA-approved medical device and may be eligible for Medicare or other insurance reimbursement. The Model A is for retail sale but not FDA approved. They look nothing like your father’s wheelchair and their performance matches. Each weighs in at about 250 pounds. While both are incredibly maneuverable, they are large and don’t take well to tight spaces, so I opted for the Whill Model Ci.

The Ci is not an approved medical device, but at 115 pounds, it’s less than half the weight of the other models. It can be disassembled into three components for relatively easy transport, though that may not be a one-person job. The Ci is smaller and can handle tight spaces in my home where I could simply not maneuver a larger chair. Even so, after a couple of months of use, the walls and doorways do show some dings, and the wheelchair arms show scuffing from close encounters of the doorway kind. Here’s a promotional video of the Whill Ci in action.

Pricing varies, with the Whill Model Ci going for about $4,000, the Model A at about $8,000 and the Model M for about $10,000.

The Chair Is Only the Beginning

Getting the chair may be just the beginning of your mobility issues.

If you have a home with steps, you’ll probably need ramps inside and outside your home. Small folding ramps can cost under $100 while larger and more permanent ramps can run into the thousands.

If you truly want to be mobile, you’ll probably want to take your chair with you. Specially designed wheelchair vans can run as high as $100,000 and may require a second person to operate.

I opted for an outside lift that fits into a standard hitch receiver. You may need a larger vehicle than what you have. Most sedans and family vans, despite their rated towing capacities, cannot support the downward weight of the lift and chair, known as the tongue weight. Many sedans have a tongue weight capacity of 150 pounds or so. You’re going to need something that supports 350 or more pounds. Installing a trailer hitch with wiring harness will cost anywhere from $250 to $500.

My lift is a Harmar AL 301 HD. Price with installation and an option that allows me to swing the platform aside to load cargo came to about $3,300. You don’t need to spend that much, but any decent lift will probably set you back about $2,000. With the Harmar lift, I simply drive the chair onto the lift platform, secure it with included tensioners, raise the lift and drive away. When you get to your destination, you lower the lift, then just drive off on your chair. The platform folds flush against the back of the vehicle when you’re not using it.

Know Before You Go

Even though the Americans With Disabilities Act was signed into law 28 years ago, there are still many places that don’t comply. It’s important to know what to expect when you head out.

Whether it’s a concert venue, sporting event, hotel, restaurant or store, you should call ahead to find out if the place is wheelchair accessible. Also, find out what you’ll need to take with you to make use of the facility, such as ramp locations and automatic doors. Despite what you may think, not even all medical offices are wheelchair friendly.

Using public transit or even city sidewalks can be a problem.

Do the sidewalks have curb cuts? Many chairs cannot negotiate curbs. Many cities provide kneeling buses that lower to take on a wheelchair, or buses with a built-in lift. Trains can be problematic, as even getting on the platform to the train can be an obstacle. Also, there’s the gap between the platform and train. In urban mass transit systems, particularly older ones, you just cannot go in your wheelchair from Point A to Point B. Case in point: the New York subways, where only a quarter of the 472 stations are wheelchair accessible, the lowest percentage in the world.

For the disabled, mobility is a major component of their well-being. It’s not just a quality of life issue. Inaccessibility makes it difficult for the disabled to reach medical care at a reasonable price. It has a direct impact on their emotional well-being. Inaccessibility can lead to social isolation which studies have found may lead to physical deterioration as well.

It is not clear at this point whether my disability is permanent or temporary. But in the meantime, I need the ability to get around. I wanted the freedom to go where and when I wanted to go. And frankly, it’s important, for the sake of domestic tranquility, to free my wife and daughter from chauffeur and nursemaid duty. In order to accomplish that, I gave up my little sports sedan in favor of a sports utility vehicle that could support a wheelchair and lift. Now I can get to medical appointments on my own. I can go to a supermarket and not worry about whether they’ve run out of those electric shopping carts.

So far, the price for my mobility has been staggering. With the new vehicle, wheelchair, ramps and power lift, the total is about $30,000. That’s a lot to pay just to get around, and one which sadly will make it impossible for many disabled Americans to easily leave home and retain a measure of independence.

By Gary Kaye
Gary M. Kaye is the Founder and Chief Content Officer of Tech50+, a website focusing on the nexus of technology and the 50+ market. He is an award winning journalist who has been covering hi tech for 35 years at news outlets such as NBC News, ABC News, CNN, Fox Business Network and others.

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