Permobil is Golden
The Manufacturer That Started with a Single Power Wheelchair Turns 50...and Eyes the Future
- By Laurie Watanabe
- Oct 01, 2017
It all began with Dr. Per Uddén.
You know that name if you know Permobil. Uddén, a physician, founded the power wheelchair company in his native Sweden in 1967. His influence permeates the company, as do his words that still guide Permobil today.
“Every person has the right to have his or her disability compensated as far as possible by aids with the same technical standard as those we all use in our everyday lives,” Uddén said.
What might be less well known is one of the Uddén personality traits that Larry Jackson, president of Permobil Business Region Americas, said is his favorite. “He just didn’t take no for an answer,” Jackson said. “That’s what we like most about him.”
Per Uddén builds an early power chair.
One Patient, One Wish
Jackson spoke to Mobility Management via Skype from Iceland. It’s a truly international company now; during the interview, Jackson noted, “We’re in all parts of the world at this point.”
But he started the interview on a much smaller, more personal scale, by mentioning a single power wheelchair and the one patient who inspired it 50 years ago.
“He was a general doctor,” Jackson said, explaining Uddén and Permobil’s beginning. “He had a patient, and that patient wanted to go outside. Most of the chairs back then didn’t really have the right wheels or motors to go outside. They were basically manual chairs with power motors on them.”
Uddén approached the major wheelchair manufacturer at the time, Everest & Jennings, for help, but was told its chairs weren’t designed for the outdoors. Undaunted, Uddén and a friend built a power wheelchair in the basement of a hospital. But Uddén didn’t stop there.
“I assume that once he made that one chair for his patient, he was getting a lot of requests,” Jackson said. “And he knew that he could design and make chairs, but if you didn’t have funding for them, you wouldn’t be able to get them.
The first Permobil power chair.
He believed this was a basic human right, that it was a responsibility of the government of Sweden to fund these power chairs.” Uddén, who was initially unable to get a meeting to discuss the matter, sat on the prime minister’s doorstep until he was admitted.
“He went to the minister and fought for funding,” Jackson said. “As far as we know, it’s one of the first, if not the first example of funding for power chairs. He got the government of Sweden to fund power chairs in the late ’60s.”
This all began with one patient who just wanted to go outside.
Today, 50 years after a humble beginning, Permobil is a giant in the complex rehab technology industry — one that manufactures not only individually made power wheelchairs, but also custom-made ultralightweight manual chairs and complex seating, thanks to acquisitions of TiLite and ROHO over the past few years.
Dr. Per Uddén
In March, the company launched Permobil Cares, a non-profit whose goals include closing the access gap between people with disabilities and the technology that could improve their lives. Asked what topics were most important to him at Permobil’s 50th anniversary, Jackson mentioned the foundation first. The company makes a donation to the foundation for every Permobil chair, TiLite chair and ROHO cushion it sells.
Permobil has many milestones in its history — Jackson pointed out that the company manufactured the first front-wheel-drive and mid-wheel-drive power chairs in the industry, has always offered integrated powered seating with its power bases, and introduced seat elevation and, most recently, anterior “Active Reach” tilt. But Jackson said Uddén’s philosophy and spirit continue to impact the company’s direction.
“We still think about that every single day, that statement, about people with disabilities having access to the same technical standards as we have in our everyday lives,” he said. “We never lose sight of that, and we feel that’s part of our job. We have to be an advocate for the end user, and one of the ways to do that is to bring more technology to them.”
That includes technology that isn’t necessarily funded when Permobil launches it.
“The seat elevator has a code for Medicare, but there’s no allowable for it,” Jackson pointed out. “We think Active Reach is just as important as the seat elevator. We bring a lot of technology to the market, even though there’s no clear path to funding.
“If you look at everything, the innovation we bring to each user — we try to put ourselves in these chairs, and we have a lot of friends who are in chairs. They tell us what they want, not what the codes will pay for, necessarily. That’s part of the challenge, to be able to bring that technology to market, in a market where there’s no additional funding that’s coming out of Medicare. It’s a difficult thing. But we still think it’s our responsibility.”
Jackson paused, then added, “It goes back to Per Uddén. We don’t take no for an answer, so to speak. If there’s technology that needs to be done, we want to do it.”
You can imagine the company’s founder, who passed away in 2002, nodding in approval.
“There’s So Much to Do”
Starting in October, when Permobil officially turns 50, there will be celebrations in Sweden and at Permobil’s North American headquarters in Lebanon, Tenn.
Jackson said other forms of celebration involving consumers and the complex rehab industry are being planned. Halfjokingly, he said of the upcoming festivities, “Permobil is known for our parties, so it won’t be small.”
Sure. This is the company, after all, that commemorated its new Lebanon facility in 2011 by inviting most of the International Seating Symposium over for dinner and a concert by a KISS cover band.
Jackson took a more serious tone regarding future goals for Permobil.
“We plan to continue to expand, not only with more products that we can put into our portfolio, but geographically as well,” he said. “There’s so much to do, to be quite honest. If you look at what rehab is in China, for instance, or what rehab is in South America, they are still at the beginning stages, which is 25 years behind the United States.”
“We think we can get in there early and help shape the funding systems, like Per Uddén did. They don’t have a Craig Hospital or really top-notch rehab. A lot of times, they think rehab is just a ROHO cushion. It’s our job to help teach them and train them and further that science.”
Permobil sold 47 units of this power chair design.
But while Permobil’s future is a global one, Jackson said the company remains dedicated to each individual consumer with unique seating and mobility needs. Permobil regularly welcomes end users and family members who drop by to visit in Lebanon.
“A lot of people do that,” Jackson said. “They want to meet the person that built their chair. And the builders love that. An end user was going to Walt Disney World, and he stopped by to meet us and pick up his new power chair. It’s really pretty fun.”
For those Permobil customers, and Permobil customers on the professional side, Jackson had a simple message: “We want to absolutely thank them: all the ATPs and clinicians, and especially the end users,” he said. “They stuck with us for 50 years. We couldn’t have done it without their support, we really couldn’t. If they didn’t believe in our product and our company and our people, we just couldn’t do it.”
“As we move forward,” Jackson added, “I hope we do everything in our power to continue to gain and keep their support. We don’t take anything for granted. We want to win their support and do the job that we can do each and every day, and make the products that inspire them and that they believe in.
“We just thank you, more than anything.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Mobility Management.
Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.