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When it comes disability-related products, make no mistake, they're expensive. With manual wheelchairs easily costing $1,500, communicators upwards of $2,500, and power wheelchairs starting at $4,500, to name only a few products, it's no surprise that many individuals and families simply don't have the cash on-hand to fund such costly products.

Fortunately, despite the grim news that we're bombarded with every day regarding the "healthcare crisis" in America, the overwhelming majority of those needing vital disability-related products have access to them via insurance - both public and private - as well as through grants, national organizations, charities, and civics groups. What's more, for those wishing to fund their purchases on their own, various forms of "assistive technology loans" are available, often at lower interest rates than conventional consumer loans.

However, while most funding sources, such as insurance or grants, fund disability-related products outright, assistive technology loans are, in fact, a branch of consumer debt, where the consumer owes money - which invites the question, is taking an assistive technology loan to buy a disability-related product a wise decision, financially and personally?

The Benefit
In comparison to many consumer loans, assistive technology loans typically offer a better interest rate. Currently, state-backed assistive technology loans feature interest rates between 4.75% and 8%, with banks and credit unions charging around 10% to 12% for these types of "medical" loans. Such interest rates are certainly attractive compared to sky-rocketing interest rates on credit cards and personal loans, where 17% interest or more isn't unusual. For these reasons, it's easy to see why those with disabilities and their families find assistive technology loans attractive - that is, they offer notably lower interest rates than other loan products.

The Reality
Despite the lower interest rates and the promise of providing access to a needed disability-related device, an assistive technology loan still has the same downside as with every other loan: It's debt that stays with the borrower for a long time. For example, if one barrows $6,000, at 6% interest, the monthly payment is $116.00, for a 5-year term - that's a long time to pay on an entirely depreciated item like a wheelchair.

Now, a $116 per month may not seem like a large payment to some in the grand scope of today's credit-crunched economy, where people pay many times that amount toward credit cards and cars every month. However, assistive technology loans typically serve those living on "fixed" incomes, with very little resources. In this way, by the very nature of who assistive technology loans serve - those with low incomes and limited resources - many people who qualify for such loans ultimately can't afford the debt that they bring.

The Debt Debate
Some argue that assistive technology loans benefit those with disabilities in the realities of everyday economics, where if an assistive technology loan allows one to obtain needed equipment at a reduced interest rate, that it's a much better alternative than charging a purchase to a high-interest credit card or going without a needed device.

Surely, on an economic scale, a lower interest rate is a better alternative than a higher interest rate. However, again, a low-interest loan - no matter what it's called - is still debt. And, despite the credit-crazed culture we live in, consumer debt unquestionably proves a burden that we place on our lives, especially for those with lower incomes and limited resources.

Of course, some also argue that when it comes to disability-related equipment, a particular device can make such a difference in our lives that having the device out outweighs any debt that comes with it. For example, if one borrows $2,000 for automotive handcontrols to allow independent transportation to work, it seems a wise investment.

However, is this justification of debt truly valid when it comes to assistive technology loans?

It's admittedly a tough call, but the answer for most consumers comes down to two fundimental questions: Can I live and function without the device, and if not, have I fully explored every other possible funding solution to avoid going into debt to buy the device?

To answer the question, we must get at the heart of accountability for those with disabilities when it comes to personal finances. If we ask what's a more valid reason to take out a loan - for a power wheelchair, or for a SeaDoo? - everyone would note the wheelchair as a valid reason, of course. Yet, what if someone already has a power wheelchair that was funded by insurance, but wants one that's faster and more capable outdoors - is the debt still a wise decision, is the debt then any different than that for a SeaDoo?

Not at all - debt is debt, especially for non-vital items. In this way, consumers with disabilities owe it to themselves and their families to view assistive technology loans with the same weight that all other consumer debt should be treated: They are to be avoided whenever possible.

What it comes down to, is that assistive technology loans are merely lower-interest loans, not alturistic grants, and must be approached as an assumption of debt, not viewed as a charitable offering. When a costly disability-related product seems beyond one's financial means, all outright funding sources should be considered - insurances, grants, organizations, vocational rehabilitation, charities, civic groups, church affiliations, and family - long before considering debt-based assistive technology loans. And, if one can't secure funding elsewhere,  one must sincerely ask the question, Can I live and function without this device?

If the answer is, yes, then one should know that proceeding with an assistive technology loan is no different than assuming any other debt - that is, it's of longterm burden and consequences.

Published 7/08, Copyright 2008,