As previously mentioned on this blog, I recently acquired a new electric wheelchair, an incredible piece of machinery produced by Permobil, called the “Permobil Street.” This chair is truly an incredible step forward in wheelchair technology, providing one of the smoothest and fastest rides I’ve ever had. The independent suspension and cambered wheelbase provides incomparable stability and is perfect for both city and all-terrain driving. For the first time ever, I think I may have finally found a wheelchair strong enough to withstand my high usage demands!
Perhaps more exciting is the added elevating seat feature I had installed. This fabulous piece of technology allows me to raise the seat up to bring my eye level to around 5-feet high, allowing me for the first time ever to converse with people face-to-face, naturalizing the social experience that many take for granted. It may seem insignificant, but there is something strange about conversing with someone in a wheelchair: walkies either tower over us or have to kneel down at our level, which I find both embarrassing and awkward.
I am truly astonished at what a difference this technology makes: everything looks different from up here. The raised perspective changes the way I look at everything. Suddenly, putting the freezer above the fridge makes sense, my cupboards are no longer for decoration, and it’s no longer a struggle attempting to operate light switches. Not only does this piece of technology help open up my own apartment, but also because it’s attached to the chair it is portable, meaning I can now do all of these tasks everywhere I go, not just in my “adapted home.”
Coming with a $5000 price tag, the seat elevating system is out of reach (…pun partially intended) for many living on ODSP. To make matters worse, the Adaptive Devices Program who help fund a majority of wheelchairs in Ontario have deemed this technology to be a “luxury” and “non-essential,” meaning it is up to the client to finance the technology themselves.
If the point of a wheelchair is to give someone his or her independence and this technology allows us to be more independent everywhere we take the chair, how is this it anything but essential? Consider the thousands of dollars being spent right now to renovate buildings to have lower cabinets, light switches, and door knobs when we could simply be building wheelchairs with increased functionality. I feel this makes far more sense than attempting to remodel existing infrastructure.
While I am a strong supporter of accessible/universal design, I am beginning to think a better way around some of these accessibility problems is by making wheelchairs more functional, not attempting to tear down and rebuild everything. Why isn’t there more funding for researching wheelchairs that can climb stairs? Why isn’t there funding for seat elevation and lowering?
Rather than reinventing the wheel(chair), we should be giving people the tools they need to live independently within their own environment, regardless if that environment follows universal design guidelines or not. By building accessibility into our chairs, we can have accessibility solutions now, while we wait for build environments to grow naturally as old buildings crumble and new, universally designed structures are erected.