What Is Consumer-Responsiveness:
New Silent Wheels

By Bob Hess

This article is reprinted from the A.T. Quarterly, Volume 2, Number 6 (1991).

Times are definitely changing. I can remember back when, if you needed a new wheelchair, you were "fitted" for one. Measurements were taken of your body proportions, and the only real option you had was the color (a good number of people seemed to like the color green). Nowadays though, terminology is different. The last time I was invited to be "fitted" for a new electric wheelchair, I was instead asked to "come take one out for a test drive."

My test drive had all the makings of the real thing as I was seated in a dealer model of the chair I was interested in. The salesman, whom I will call Rodney, described all of its features. He did not have to say much to impress me. The chair was cushioned so that the ride was comfortable. The chrome had a polished shine. The controls were mounted so that everything was well within reach. Rodney had a smile on his face...the price tag nowhere in sight.

I was impressed with some features that I was introduced to. This wheelchair was silent. It did not hum when it moved. The possibility of propelling myself silently was a definite plus. It also had electric brakes which came on as soon as I let go of the stick, giving me full control of the chair's movements. No more rolling away from my van while trying to close it up when parked on a hill.

And it had a horn...

I maneuvered the chair around the store to get the feel of it. I wanted to find out how quickly it responded to my touch, how swiftly it accelerated, how precisely it turned, and how suddenly it stopped. All of these questions were answered during that initial ride, but then I was delightfully surprised to find out that I did not have to settle for these characteristics. The chair had a computer mounted on the back of it so that it could be programmed to my individual needs.

A computer? On a wheelchair? What does a wheelchair need a computer for? Believe it or not, the computer controlled everything that I was looking out for during my introductory ride, and if I did not like how it felt or could not properly handle the chair, the computer could be programmed to adjust all the settings. Wow, if I could only get it to do my taxes, I would be all set.

"So," said Rodney, "do you think you're ready for the parking lot?"

"The parking lot," I repeated.

"Yes. You should get a feel for how it handles on the open road."

I could not believe what he was saying. I was in the market for a new wheelchair, not a Trans-Am. But, I was interested in how it felt when I had it at top speed. After all, there was a button on it that said "Outdoor" above it. I wanted to see what the chair did when it knew it was outdoors. I took a quick look to see if there was a picnic basket under the seat.

Just after we left the store, Rodney pointed out that the computer was set for 75 percent of the speed capacity and he asked me if I wanted to try a higher setting. My sense for adventure took over and before I knew it the speed was set at 95 percent.

Keep in mind that I was used to my chair and boasting to people that they would have to walk at a brisk pace to keep up with it at full speed. The burst of acceleration which I experienced from this new wheelchair had me wondering if I would need a sidecar for anyone who wanted to take a walk with me. A quick halt followed the initial thrust and I was reminded to check to make sure that the seatbelt was fastened.

My test drive around the parking lot had all the makings of an Indy time trial. I never did handle it properly. Rodney assured me that I would become more comfortable with it after some practice and he set the computer back to 75 percent.

With the control stick set for "Indoor-Low" we went into my van to make sure the chair fit properly. I was pleased to see that I would be able to drive from the chair with only a few modifications. I was sold, and we went inside to sign the papers.

It was then time to order all the options I desired. Rodney laughed when I asked for two seatbelts. He then asked me if I wanted the optional power pack which enabled the chair to move as fast as it did while I had it on the racetrack. My first reaction was to say no because of the problems I was having controlling the chair at top speed. I considered this option a luxury. But then I pondered the question a bit further and compared it to someone asking an able-bodied person whether they wanted the ability to run. One never knows when they will ever need to run, but it is good to know you can if you have to. I was having visions of sudden rainstorms, dogs chasing me, late mornings, highway patrolmen...I looked at Rodney and said yes.

It was a good six months later that my new hot-rod chair came in, and another three months before work was done so that I could use it in my van. But it was worth the wait. I feel like a different person now that I can move in silence. Instead of all heads turning when I enter a room, I can now sneak up on people.

And the speed. I am now accustomed to the chair and its capabilities, and I know what it feels like to run. And I do not lose my breath by the time I reach my destination. Unfortunately, I do not burn off calories either.

The A.T. Quarterly was a newsletter developed by the RESNA TA Project under a contract with the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), U.S. Department of Education (ED). The content, however, does not necessarily reflect the position or policy of NIDRR/ED and no official endorsement of the material should be inferred.

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