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Someone posed the question on the message board of, Why are Europeans so much more innovative in their design of power wheelchairs than those in the United States?

The unquestionable answer is that Europeans aren't intrinsically more talented than their U.S. counterparts when it comes to the ability to innovate power mobility products; rather, European culture simply places a higher emphasis on quality of life for those with disabilities. See, the difference between European mobility products and U.S. mobility products isn't based on technological superiority, but on cultural norms – that is, the answer comes down to people, not products.

In many European countries, a high value is placed on quality of life – and that includes for those with disabilities. Many European cultures recognize that those with disabilities are entitled to the same quality of life as others, where optimal mobility is viewed as vital. What's more, by holding political and administrative positions, Europeans with disabilities, themselves, have driven a social conscience toward quality of life for all. As a result, the social model in many European countries – for example, France, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark – is to provide the highest-end power mobility products, so that those with disabilities can live the fullest lives possible, integrating and contributing to society. In literal terms, quality of life for those with disabilities trumps monetary concerns in many European countries, so mobility funding flows more freely, where high-end power mobility products are distributed as a societal standard. As one European mobility professional phrased it, “The emphasis is less on cost, and more about getting the person in the right product.”

In contrast, it's the cultural viewpoint toward power mobility products in the U.S. that creates the true distinction between European and U.S. mobility offerings. For starters, while much of Europe views mobility as a quality of life issue, the U.S. views it as a medical issue, typically only funding the ”lowest cost device needed for in-home use only.” In comparison, Finland, for example, will fund the equivalent of a $25,000 power wheelchair that features every option, from power seating to lighting and beyond, where even all-terrain use is considered an entitlement. However, in the U.S., it's challenging to fund a $6,000 power wheelchair with no options, where, again, it's viewed by agencies like Medicare as a medical device needed for in-home use only, with no considerations toward overall quality of life.

For these reasons, the U.S. doesn't see the ultra-high-end products of Europe entering the U.S. market for distribution to any notable degree because U.S. culture doesn't view mobility as a quality of life issue, and therefore won't fund high-end mobility products for all in need. In this way, while U.S.-based power wheelchair manufacturers have every ability to offer stunningly-advanced technologies, they can't financially do so, as there's virtually no funding available for ultra-high-end, all-terrain oriented products like those sold in Europe. As free-market works, companies simply cannot manufacture goods that can't be sold. In fact, a foremost reason why the self-balancing iBot was discontinued in the U.S. was because of a lack of funding for its costly technology – the government and insurers wouldn't fund it to any meaningful extent, so those who needed it couldn't buy it, and the manufacturer couldn't keep producing it.

The question then becomes, Why doesn't the U.S., as a whole, view mobility products as a quality of life issue, offering adequate funding of higher-end products like, say, Finland?

Much of the answer goes back to those of us with disabilities, ourselves, in the U.S., where we haven't emphasized the importance of life-enhancing mobility to any organized consensus. Everyday, I work with individuals struggling for wheelchair funding. And, what’s telling is that while those in need of wheelchairs are frustrated during the funding process, once they have their own new wheelchairs – generally accepting whatever is funded, even when it's minimal mobility at best – they disappear into the sunset, exhibiting seemingly zero concern toward their peers’ similar struggles. As a result, those with disabilities in the U.S. continue losing vital mobility funding because we, as individuals and as a country, place very little emphasis on it as a quality of life issue. For example, since 2005, power wheelchair funding has been cut by 39.78% – and only covers models for in-home use. While these facts are clearly unacceptable, many individuals with disabilities truly don’t seem to care, remaining silent, accepting what they were given. Based on our inaction, quality of life, apparently, isn't high on our priority list as those with disabilities in the U.S.

Indeed, when comparing mobility products between Europe and the United States, there are technological differences, where Europe has a vastly greater array of ultra-high-end models, widely distributed. However, the true difference among mobility product offerings truly isn't that of technological superiority, but of social awareness. And, as long as those in the U.S., including those of us with disabilities, ourselves, merely see mobility products as medical devices of bare necessity, and not the quality of life tools that they truly are – facilitating education, employment, independent living, and social integration – we will continue seeing a technological divide of the haves and have-nots between Europe and the U.S.

If we want to ever achieve a liberated mobility marketplace in the United States comparable to that of many European countries, then each one of us must assume responsibility for advocating quality of life for all, lobbying our elected officials toward their understanding that mobility funding isn't about purse strings or products, but about people.

Published 3/2010, Copyright 2010,