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If you asked me to guess the number one profession of those who use wheelchairs, I'd have to say retired engineers who used to race motorcycles. I note this tongue-in-cheek - but also seriously - in that I've received countless angry emails over the years that are all to the same tune:

"I can't believe what a racket the wheelchair dealers run. Not only won't they sell me parts, but they want $65 just to diagnose the problem with my wheelchair. I was an engineer for 30 years, who raced motorcycles. When my motorcycle broke, I bought parts and fixed it. Who do you think you are, referring me to my dealer like I'm an imbecile? You wheelchair guys are nothing but a scam."

Of course, I politely explain that wheelchairs are vital devices, that by suggesting that one contacts one's provider, I'm only trying to ensure that one's mobility is maintained to the highest standards. After all, I have no way of assessing any one person's credentials, skills, or reasoning, and it would be irresponsible of me to send someone a box of parts, inviting him or her to take a stab at the repair, where if he or she did something wrong, the wheelchair could malfunction or become dangerous. In this way, as much as folks complain about their providers - and some have every right to - the most prudent path that manufacturers can take is to recommend that consumers seek out qualified providers for the repair and servicing of their mobility products.

Still, there is a valid question in that how come one can buy parts to service one's own motorcycle, but one can't typically buy parts to service one's own power wheelchair? After all, aren't motorcycles one thousand times more dangerous than wheelchairs?

Absolutely - and based on cultural and legal perspectives, the fact that motorcycles are inherently dangerous, and that mobility products like wheelchairs are inherently safe, is precisely why you can find acceptance to work on one but not the other, respectively. Isn't it backward, then, that consumers can work on dangerous products but not safe ones?

The answer is, no, not if you understand our culture and the law. Volenti non fit injuria is a defense in the law of torts that means "to a willing person, no injury is done" - or, in simple terms, one "assumes risk" or "gives consent." For example, if one goes snow skiing, and breaks one's leg on the slope, one typically can't successfully sue the ski resort, as there's clearly a consent to run a risk while snow skiing.

Motorcycles, like skiing, fall under "assumed risk," as well. As a culture, we universally recognize the potential risk for anyone riding a motorcycle. In this way, motorcycle dealers and manufacturers have a valid, recognized defense in volenti non fit injuria, where consumers buy and use motorcycles with assumed risks. (No, "assumed risk" isn't a blanket defense - motorcycle dealers and manufacturers lose lawsuits from time to time - but the motorcycle industry as a whole functions under a very recognized level of assumed risk by consumers).

In contrast, mobility products - such as wheelchairs, scooters, and related equipment - serve consumers on the polar opposite of the product spectrum than motorcycles. In our culture, we universally assume that wheelchairs are inherently safe. As one with cerebral palsy, I use my wheelchair out of medical necessity, and it's entirely reasonable for me to expect that my wheelchair's manufacturer and provider have taken steps to ensure that my wheelchair is as safe as possible in its intended use. Sure, any product can prove hazardous if improperly used, but I don't associate a defined risk by simply using my wheelchair in accordance with its purpose.

It's under this cultural and legal perspective of safe use why the mobility industry, as a whole, doesn't allow consumers to service their own mobility products (that is, beyond routine maintenance). For example, if one drives a motorcycle at full throttle around a hairpin turn, everyone knows that a bad result could occur - everyone knows the assumed risk. However, what if one uses a programmer to dramatically raise the turn speed on a power wheelchair - will the wheelchair remain stable with a particular user, under a certain circumstance? The manufacturer and provider know, but the typical user wouldn't because, again, wheelchairs, as medical devices, are presumed safe by most consumers, and a particular consumer may not have awareness of potentially harmful programming settings under certain circumstances. In this way, manufacturers and providers account for market needs and perceptions of safety by doing whatever possible to ensure that wheelchairs meet consumers' expectations - and that can't be accomplished by indiscriminately selling parts and endorsing self-service for complex issues.

Surely, some might wonder if working on one's own mobility product is an "assumed risk," and if so, why would a manufacturer or provider care whether a consumer obtains an appropriate outcome - if the consumer injures himself, it's his fault, right? Yes and no. If a consumer ignores all labeling, warnings, and protocols, and works on his mobility product by getting parts unbeknownst to the manufacturer and provider, he solely assumes whatever outcome occurs. However, plainly speaking, that's a very different situation than if a provider or manufacturer sells him the parts, making no effort to ensure that they're properly installed and serviced - that is, a manufacturer or provider could be liable in some circumstances for not taking reasonable steps toward instructing proper service.

It is important to point out that there is a balance to the repair and servicing of mobility products. For example, if a consumer contacts a manufacturer out of urgent necessity because she caught her joystick cable on a wheelchair lift, breaking the plug, a responsible, compassionate manufacturer will stuff a new cable in an envelope, and send it to her, knowing that plugging in the cable is a universal skill, and wanting to help the consumer. However, a responsible manufacturer also knows that it would be inappropriate to supply a wiring diagram so that the consumer can splice a damaged cable together. Therefore, consumers, manufacturers, and providers are most successful when they understand realistic needs, solutions, and expectations, and form boundaries around them.

I know that it's easy for one to become frustrated in individual circumstances, where one feels completely capable of repairing or servicing one's own mobility product, but is referred to a provider who may not seem ideal. However, it's important to recognize the cultural and legal expectations that we, as consumers, place on mobility products, where we don't typically assume inherent risk, where we expect our mobility products to perform to the safest standards. In this way, it's clear that  manufacturers and providers aren't trying to make life difficult for consumers by requiring formal service protocols; rather, manufacturers and providers are simply striving to responsibly meet the cultural and legal expectations placed on mobility products, ensuring their safe service and operation.

Published 4/08, Copyright 2008,