Monday, September 21, 2009

The correlation of learned helpessness and medical equipment design under the medical model

Quickie wheelchairs, which are much lighter than the medical model behomeths commonly available in nursing homes, hospitals and for those unable to afford ultralight wheelchairs, were invented for a wheelchair user years ago. Marilyn Hamilton found that the heavier wheelchairs prevented her from being as independent as she could be, and two friends set out to design a product that would enhance wheelchair users' lives. Marilyn cofounded Quickie wheelchairs to provide them to others.

As I struggle using a medical model heavy manual wheelchair (mind you, this is my secondary chair since I use a power chair most of the time), I can't help but wonder about the correlation between learned helplessness and the design of this - thing they call a wheelchair. It weighs three times as much as the wheelchair I had that broke. Its front wheels seem to curl up like a possum when I try to go over a threshold, like into my own bathroom. The arms on it prevent me from moving laterally at all- there's no way to reach over them with my disability and no way to remove them. The footrests stick out at an angle which means I have to move extremely slowly through hallways, but of course that's not a problem since pushing it is like pushing a spare table around.

Lest you think I'm writing this just to vent, let me point out what this has shown me. I'm less likely to move at all. I've asked my assistant to move things closer and have had to eliminate many of the independent tasks I used to do. I'm leaving things undone that I could have done before. Worse yet, I am worn out by the end of the day even though I'm doing an iota of what I used to do.

So what if a person only has access to these heavy duty wheelchairs? He or she (and those around them) winds up thinking that the limits on that equipment are part of the disability when actually its the wheelchair that's part of the problem. Of course someone would feel limited and learn to ask for more help using a piece of equipment that's heavier and unable to allow independent movement.

Yes,, those of us who have had access to quickie wheelchairs and ultralightweight ones are surely very lucky people. Instead of learning helplessness, we learned what we could do with that equipment.

Thank you , Marilyn.


william Peace said...

The sale and manufacturing of wheelchairs is not a profitable business. Sales are not determined by need but price points. Add in the fact the so called durable medical goods industry is populated by incompetent jerks only makes a tough situation more difficult. The end result is more often than not people that need a high end wheelchair settle for an inferior product. I have no respect for companies like Quickie and its predecessor Everest & Jennings. Both have a heart warming story line followed by a devotion to profit at the expense of its customer base. Long ago I opted out and farm out my wheelchair needs to individual companies such as motor cycle and bike shops that provide superior service at a fraction of the cost.

Wheelie Catholic said...

Bill- Sorry for the delay in my reply, I had a hectic day yesterday.

You make an excellent point. I've used bike shops to get repairs done for my wheelchair, mostly because I've had really bad experiences going through conventional repair services - waits of well over a month for a wheelchair I need for work, etc. I would also purchase a wheelchair through a non-medical provider if possible- like a bike shop, because I find the less medicalized an item is, the cheaper it is and the better service I get.

Anonymous said...

I recently saw a YouTube video which seemed to come from a TV news report but seemed like an advertorial for Quickie, and noted that they were founded by a paraplegic woman to answer the needs of real disabled people, particularly women. I don't know how old the video was, but it named the woman as the founder of Motion Design (the company that originally made Quickies) which was taken over by Sunrise Medical many years ago, something they didn't mention.

I've read elsewhere that Quickies were revolutionary when they first came out, and Tiffiny Carlson wrote a very funny article about two hideous E&J's (one manual and one powered). Is it just that they haven't kept up with the competition, or is it a case of built-in obsolescence, or of a corporate takeover resulting in poorer quality?

Wheelie Catholic said...

I must admit while trying to push a behemoth wheelchair of 40 pounds around this week (even on a very part time basis), having dislocated a thumb and adding bruises, I've asked myself why on earth they are still building wheelchairs of this kind. I can see needing stable wheelchairs and that not everyone wants or needs a very light one, but the 40 pound type is pretty useless. I can only guess (and I'm guessing) that they're cheaper to make.

Maybe the answer is community living- nursing homes buy these for those who really aren't going anywhere. By putting people in the community who need a decent lighter chair, we'd eliminate the market for these heavy - things.

Katja said...

Amen, sister!

When it first became apparent that I was going to need a wheelchair if I planned to continue living life as I wanted to, my own neurologist discouraged me from trying to get an ultralightweight wheelchair - those wheelchair were only for athletes, or young, fit SCIs.

Wheelie Catholic said...


::nodding:: There still is a need to see a wheelchair as a way to move around most efficiently - and not to be "bound". Or, as with some chairs, planted - in one spot.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one who finds the names of some of these chairs hilarious?

Quickie sounds like it refers to the chair's construction, kind of like "Friday car". It also sounds like divorce.

Crossfire sounds cool and sporty -- unless you're a paralysed veteran or the innocent victim of a gangland shoot-out.

Invacare ... do we still call anyone an invalid?

And there's one called Spazz, too.


Matt Smith

Wheelie Catholic said...

How about Top End? Sounds like a roast. Try wearing a quickie T shirt around and see what reactions you get :)

william Peace said...

The names of wheelchair are nothing short of silly. Some are even demeaning. Sadly the last major technological innovation in manual wheelchairs was the introduction of rigid frames more than 20 years ago. Other innovations have been minor and incorporated from other industries. This is a shame because good design and wheelchair technology should go together. A fascinating discussion of technology, design and disability can be found a new book Design Meets Disability by Graham Pullin (MIT Press).

Matthew said...

I was browsing the Colours in Motion website yesterday and I couldn't help noticing that besides the Spazz, they are selling one called the Chump (a kids' chair) and another called the Razorblade.

I also notice that all their "everyday chairs" are advertised with sexy female models (and there was me thinking 80% of those with SCIs were male), and all their sporty chairs are advertised with hunky male ones.

Also, I thought you might be interested in this recent post of mine, inspired by a particularly tragic episode of brutality towards a mentally impaired young girl and her family.

Matt Smith


Wheelie Catholic said...

Thanks for the link. I heard about that story - absolutely horrendous.