Powered wheelchairs and Right to Repair

An unprecedented legislative victory in Colorado.

Cory Doctorow

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Here’s a miserable story with a mostly happy ending, one that leaves us with work to do, sure, but also with clarity on what to do next and how to do it. It’s about Colorado’s HB22–1031, “Consumer Right To Repair Powered Wheelchairs,” which Governor Jared Polis signed into law last week:

https://leg.colorado.gov/bills/hb22-1031#:~:text=Concerning%20a%20requirement%20that%20a,repair%20the%20manufacturer%27s%20powered%20wheelchairs

Three million Americans rely on wheelchairs, and many of them use powered wheelchairs. A wheelchair is an amazing assistive device, one that can mean the difference between being stuck at home — or even in bed — and being able to work, go to school, shop, and see family and friends.

Even if you don’t use a powered wheelchair, it won’t surprise you to learn that they break. A lot. Anyone with a phone or a laptop — tech that travels with us out of the home, into the great and wild outdoors — knows that stuff you take with you into the world takes a lot of knocks.

But when it comes to powered wheelchairs, there are a lot of complicated — and frankly awful — structural factors that virtually guarantee that the chairs will get broken, and then getting them fixed is an incredible hassle. These structural factors are detailed in “Stranded,” the US Public Interest Research Group’s new report:

https://uspirgedfund.org/reports/usp/stranded

Stranded’s foundation is 141 interviews US wheelchair users about their experiences with wheelchairs, which informs its commercial and legal analysis of the structural problems that underpin those experiences.

The report explains how Medicare narrowly interprets its statutory duties, allowing it to exclude outdoor powered wheelchairs from its program. That means that the majority of Americans who rely on powered wheelchairs have to use indoor wheelchairs, even when outdoors.

No wonder that these chairs break. A lot. As Mark Schmeler from U Pitt told Markian Hawryluk from Kaiser Health News, “It’s like you’re outside walking around all day with your slippers on.”

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