I offer my list of events in the timeline of wheelchair development, the acceptance of people in chairs and key milestones which forged people’s perceptions of wheelchairs and the people who use them. Please join in the conversation – what’s on your list?
#1. Americans with Disabilities Act.
In 1990, Congress passed the comprehensive civil rights law addressing the rights of people with disabilities. The ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability and requires reasonable accommodation to the disabled. The original bill was introduced in the Senate by Iowa’s Tom Harkin and was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. The ADA has had a profound impact on workplaces, schools and public spaces – but not without controversy. In the big picture, the ADA has brought millions with disabilities out of the shadows and into the mainstream leading to much higher quality of life for those with disabilities and a richer life experience for all.
#2. Superman in a wheelchair?
In 1995, actor Christopher Reeve, best known for his role as Superman, was paralyzed in a horse-related accident. Reeve was a quadriplegic. His fame and his determination to advocate for those who required the use of a wheelchair brought tremendous visibility to the cause. In particular, Reeve’s efforts revealed the importance of complex rehab technology used in wheelchairs and the way it enabled users to pursue a high quality of life despite being confined to a wheelchair.
#3. Marilyn Hamilton and the Quickie Wheelchair.
In 1979, Marilyn Hamilton and two partners launched the Quickie wheelchair, a revolution in lightweight and fashion-forward chairs. Due to a hang-gliding accident, Hamilton became a T-12 paraplegic, but wasn’t willing to surrender her active lifestyle to partial paralysis. This Quickie chair was designed with an active lifestyle in mind but also, for the first time in a wheelchair, introduced a focus on design and visual appeal, in addition to enhanced freedom and movement. The Quickie represented wheelchairs and wheelchair users going on the offensive against paralysis – living an active, quality life regardless of any limitations. All the elements of the Quickie would be enhanced over time, but it was Hamilton’s vision that ignited a very big change.
#4. Judy Heumann overcomes bias and adversity to teach school.
Our Country’s treatment of people with disabilities has come a long way since Judy Heumann was forced out of school in the 1950’s. Her crime? She was confined to a wheelchair. With the help of persistent and dedicated parents, Judy got an education, graduated from college and qualified to become a teacher. She was very bright, articulate and caring. But the Board of Education refused to grant her a license to teach school because she had the audacity to be confined to a wheelchair. Her struggle ignited a passion to fight for the rights of people with disabilities and her efforts were instrumental in creation of two landmark laws, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1975) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990). Today, people would not imagine this blatant discrimination, but in that era it was commonplace, which is why her battle to overcome it is in my top 10.
#5. Wheelchair developments make life more accessible
The ability to fully participate in the regular activities of life may be the holy grail for wheelchair users. Recent engineering and technology advances have opened up the world to people using wheelchairs in a way that was never before possible. One of the best examples is the standing powerchair, a product greatly enhanced and mainstreamed in recent years by Permobil. Standing chairs offer clear health benefits such as pressure relief, advantages in bowel control and respiratory function. But perhaps more importantly, standing and moving are life-changing. Standing allows reach, function and social interaction which removes many barriers and equalizes in a way not before available to a wide range of wheelchair users.
#6. Reduction in Reimbursement
Around the dawn of this century, Congress and bureaucrats from Medicare began a fifteen year run of reducing Medicare and insurance reimbursement for wheelchairs. This took various forms, including many steps to restrict access to wheelchairs and power mobility equipment and to reduce the amounts paid for wheelchairs. The effects of this multi-pronged effort was a reduction in the curve of innovation, a downgrading of the equipment available to wheelchair users and significant reduction in the number of people able to improve quality of life through wheelchair products. Some of this policy change was driven by a dramatic escalation in direct to consumer advertising which, on the positive side, made millions of people aware of how wheelchair technology could enhance their quality of life, but many payers and regulators took a negative view of the significant increase in the number of people using such medical devices. Bizarrely, Medicare, by policy, covers power wheelchairs used “inside the home” only. Policies created by the bureaucrats at Medicare don’t have to make sense, and often don’t.
#7. Invacare’s First Power Wheelchair.
Invacare, led by maverick Mal Mixon, launched its first power wheelchair (the Rolls Arrow) into the marketplace in 1983. The chair was user-centric and was equipped with electronics, which were advanced for the time. That chair was the first of many advancements in power chairs brought to the market. More and better chairs would come, but this one spurred the market, drove innovation and led to a much greater focus on the needs of the wheelchair user.
#8. The 2016 U.S. Senate election in Illinois.
This contested election was between two candidates who are physically disabled, both of whom regularly use a wheelchair. Tammy Duckworth lost both her legs and partial use of her right arm in the line of duty after a helicopter she was piloting was shot down in Iraq in 2004. Mark Kirk, the incumbent Senator, suffered a massive stroke in 2012 leaving his left side partially paralyzed. Both candidates, understandably, downplayed the presence of their disabilities. Nonetheless, it is impossible to deny the historic nature of this race. Duckworth won the election and now represents Illinois in the US Senate.
#9. The use of wheelchairs becomes “acceptable” in Popular Culture.
Pop culture is often a signal of changing societal norms and conventional wisdom. In the decade beginning in 2006, there was an emergence of people with disabilities, specifically those using a wheelchair, in our pop culture. A few of the key inflection points were:
* The hit TV show, Glee, which prominently featured a character in a chair.
* American Girl actively marketing a wheelchair accessory in its doll line as well as the first of its doll girls who had a disability.
* Barbie launching a wheelchair accessory.
* The ABC show Speechless, in which one of the characters uses a power chair and assistive speech technol
#10. Woodrow Wilson is first US President to rely on a wheelchair.
Wilson was a visionary president who ended the First World War and set in place strategic and diplomatic measures, which ultimately led to sustained peace and prosperity across the globe. Deteriorating health in the latter part of his presidency resulted in Wilson’s reliance on a wheelchair. Both the norms of the era and the limitations on media allowed his wheelchair usage to be largely concealed from the public. A protégé of Wilson’s would later become President and he also required a wheelchair for mobility. Franklin Roosevelt, like Wilson, concealed his wheelchair usage. The longer-term impact of Roosevelt was an acknowledgement and acceptance of people in wheelchairs – but it started with Wilson.
#11. Jeff Minnebraker builds the first ultra-lightweight wheelchair.
In 1975 Minnebraker built a chair to specifically fit his body, disability and lifestyle. In the 1970’s and early 1980’s, University of California-Berkeley was the hub of an independent living movement. People with mobility disabilities leveraged that hub to integrate into a community. Minnebraker’s Berkeley Power Chair emerged from that community. It never became a commercially available product, but it was an important breakthrough establishing means to meet the needs of the wheelchair bound person demanding an increasing level of independence.
12. Color in wheelchairs
Color has nothing to do with function, so why would it be a top 12 development in wheelchairs? For people who rely on a wheelchair to get around, the chair is their car, their desk and their house in many ways. It’s the place they spend most of their time. And it’s a first impression. Just as Steve Jobs brought color to the computer, which then led to advances in style, color in wheelchairs has done the same. This is especially important for children confined to a wheelchair. We all have an innate need to belong, and in this context color can help.