Made to Order

Serving up Home & Auto Accessibility Requires the Right Blend of Features that Maximize Independence

Home & Auto AccessibilityThe phrase "one size fits all" just doesn't cut it anymore when it comes to a mobility equipment user's independence. Consumers these days are piggybacking off of what Burger King has been advertising for years: having it their way.

No longer are consumers content with accessibility equipment that is merely functional. Consumers want much more from the products they put into their homes, garages and automotive vehicles. And manufacturers and suppliers alike are being tasked with providing accessibility technology that fulfills a range of needs.

Meeting Multiple Needs: Home Accessibility

End-users are demanding accessibility equipment that completely fits their lifestyle, says Dave Henderson, national and international outside sales manager of EZ-ACCESS. "We're actually working with our dealers on doing a complete environmental survey on the patient and their accessibility needs," he says. "It's no longer a situation where someone walks in the door and hands you some accessibility equipment, and ‘Here you go — here's the lift you need, here's the ramp you need,' and you're done. One of the things I push is that it's not just selling a piece of equipment, it's about fulfilling a need."

One way that EZ-ACCESS has tried to meet their customers' demands is by designing functional, attractive products. In addition to its aluminum threshold ramp, it's added a rubber ramp in order to meet next-generation desires.

"It accomplishes the need of overcoming that inch-and-a-half, two inch threshold rise from their porch to their house, but it's also aesthetically pleasing and doesn't look any different from a welcome mat sitting in front of their door," Henderson says.

Today's manufacturers are being asked to accommodate accessibility needs even for homes that were not originally constructed to be accessible. "More builders and architects are getting savvy and considering home elevators, landings of stairways and other accessibility needs at ground level," says Todd Bick, director of sales and operations at Harmar and Freedom Mobility, LLC.

One product example that Bick referenced is Harmar's Pinnacle stairlift, which folds compactly to 11", allowing accessibility for those with narrow stairways. Harmar also offers dumbwaiters, which can be used for both food and laundry access, and their cargo lifts help consumers to transport groceries and firewood.

Consumers want the equipment they own to be user friendly, sophisticatedly simple and available quickly, Henderson says. Take, for instance, baby boomers: They need mobility equipment, but they don't want the equipment to cheapen the value of their homes or make it appear as though they have disabilities.

And there's more to the equation: Consumers want to get their hands on a product in a timely fashion and at affordable prices.

"So they want it to look good, function well, work easily and get it now," Henderson says.

Sue Johnson, director of education at Columbia Medical, agrees — and has noticed additional consumer demands, as well.

People want to be able to take their equipment with them when they travel or relocate. She added that families are looking for ease of use and multi-functional equipment that doesn't require costly home modifications. For example, they want a bath slider system that can be used for both bathing and toileting, and that also facilitates transfers.

They also want the system to be easily removed and stored so that other family can use the same bathroom space. Johnson points out Columbia Medical's Omni and Elite bath transfer systems, which meet those needs.

To better accommodate different users, EZ-ACCESS is making the controls on their vertical platform lift easier to troubleshoot and more userfriendly. Henderson says using LED lighting will help users better communicate problems to dealers, and help dealers to easily identify issues. The company is also focusing on developing lighter ramps for those with limited mobility in their hands, or someone who lives independently or has an older caregiver.

Providing customers with mobility products that meet their specific needs definitely opens up an opportunity for dealers to improve their own bottom lines, especially with changes in Medicare reimbursement and competitive bidding.

"If I just fit the patient for a mobility device and stop right there," Henderson says, "when the patient realizes that they have a need for a ramp, they'll probably go somewhere else because I didn't identify the need, and I didn't fulfill it."

Many mobility users don't seek out products until they absolutely have a need for them. Since it is too costly, and virtually impossible, for providers to showcase every product in a manufacturer's product portfolio, consumers don't always know what's available. "We encourage the end-user to seek and find out what else is out there…because there are a lot of products that can meet many, many needs," says Bick.

Providers have to be sharp in identifying needs up front. According to Johnson, recognizing mobility, bathing, toileting and transportation safety equipment needs — at the same time — is paramount. Dealers should also consider all costs involved in providing equipment, including setup, maintenance and repair.

Johnson says recommending high-quality equipment that is easier to set up provides longer-term dependability and durability, which better serves the client in terms of safety and convenience. "This will benefit the provider's bottom line," she says, "if he doesn't have to make return visits for maintenance and repair services, which are reimbursed at low rates or not at all."

Adaptive Automotive Equipment: Access on the Road

Simplification is a recurring theme in both home and auto accessibility.

Auto accessibility consumers are seeking adaptive vehicles that offer ease of use, ergonomically positioned switches and amenities, as well as adequate entry and exit space, says Nick Gutwein, president of BraunAbility.

"We have removable seats, but how easy is it to remove those seats, how quickly can you move the seat, how efficiently can a wheelchair occupant put their chair in the right position and have it tie down in a way that's efficient?" Gutwein asks. "All those aspects will be more and more important to our users."

As technology advances and next-generation products become more of a demand, consumers will want vehicles that have passed safety standards.

But they'll also want the vehicles to be attractive.

"People with disabilities really don't want a vehicle that looks different than what anyone else wants to buy or use," Gutwein says. "Having something that is customized to meet their individual needs — whether it is the disability, the kind of chair they have, or the family support structure — is imperative."

Going forward, manufacturers will likely seek user input in many areas of design, including locations of switches, easier tie-down mechanisms and lower noise levels.

"What we have to focus on is what provides value to the user, and the way I look at that is making it easier to enter and exit the vehicle and making it efficient for them to get to and from work," Gutwein says. "We're adding value to that individual's life, and therefore, they're willing to pay for the value that we're giving to them."

Listening to customers' feedback, whether from the dealer or end-user, is an essential element when improving products, says Brian Mills, lifts product manager at Pride Mobility Products.

"We do have a lot of innovation coming forth based on some of that feedback," he says. Pride will be introducing new Boom lifts and just introduced its Outlander Exterior Lift with swing-away adaptor. "It has a lot of the enhanced features that our customers have been asking for," he says. "Some of those features are new to the industry, and we've had a lot of positive feedback since we launched."

Furthermore, consumers are seeking ease of dependability, compatibility and installation, says Cy Corgan, national sales director of retail mobility at Pride.

"What the consumers are ultimately looking for is: Can the person that manufactures the product pay attention to what we need as the consumer of the product?" he says. Products must themselves be exceptional, have exceptional designs and value that will in turn earn the trust of the provider and customer.

In adaptive vehicles, consumers also want quieter, smoother rides.

"We want the ride for our wheelchair features to be as quiet as we would find in a Lexus or any kind of vehicle that's not converted today," Gutwein says. "Many of the conversions available only have one design, and that does not fit the needs and lifestyles that most of our consumers have. So flexibility in positioning a vehicle along with space and maneuverability will be targets for improvements along the way."

But it's not just about designing a vehicle to look more presentable. Reliability is an important factor, as well.

"I think where we are today is transitioning from technological improvements to advances in reliability to really focusing on the specific needs of the end-user," Gutwein says. "Thirty to 40 years ago, those with mobility disabilities were just happy to be able to get into a vehicle. But that's not the case anymore. The industry is definitely becoming more technologically advanced."

Pride has noticed a shift from traditional vehicles to hybrids, Mills says. Manufacturers now have to deal with more electronics, making safety a big consideration when interfacing with these vehicles.

Technology is key to providing affordable solutions for people with a wide range of disabilities. This is why designs should be flexible enough to accommodate different needs.

"It has to be right according to budget, according to their need, and according to their disability," Gutwein says. "That's something not to miss when you talk about technology. It's got to be matched properly to the individual." Having an expert on hand to listen and match individuals with the right solutions is equally as important as technological advances, Gutwein adds.

Furthermore, those selling mobility products should engage in best practices, Corgan emphasizes. Accessibility providers should have the technical expertise and training to be in the business, along with the ability to effectively promote and market items. When a customer needs a new scooter or power chair, and the dealer has a vehicle lift on display, it helps to increase the provider's revenue because lifts are cash sales products.

It's what Corgan refers to as completing the mobility cycle.

WC19 & WC20: Extending Accessibility to Chairs

Being able to clearly identify consumer needs and then providing consumers with options for meeting those needs creates a win-win situation for all involved. Manual and power chairs that meet the WC19 and WC20 automotive crash-test standards are no exception.

Jim Dyes, director of sales and marketing at Therafin Corp., says Therafin's new WC20 seating allows users to put a specific seating system on their choice of base.

It creates a natural interoperability by giving consumers the chance to choose the style of seating and mobility base they prefer without having to be locked into one manufacturer, says Pete Cionitti, director of product management at Therafin.

Tim Morrison, custom seating product manager of Sunrise Medical, has found that overall, consumers are concerned with safety. "They are not concerned with the particular features, but rather with the general assurance that any seating system that is transit compliant be safe and easy to use," he notes.

Sunrise Medical is providing improved safety to consumers through its JAY ConfigureFit Custom seating offering. They've developed new mounting brackets that utilize a pin-and-lanyard assembly that secures the seat to the hardware during transit, says Morrison. It's important that providers continue to communicate the importance of a fully-transitapproved system to payors and consumers, he adds.

The introduction of WC20 testing alone has been a leap forward developing a safety standard for the transit and mobility base, says Cionitti. Prior to that, transit safety really didn't take into account the seat being separate from the mobility base. Industry experts said WC20 testing will likely evolve into a rear-impact standard, which will add another level of assurance to the performance of the product.

Since there is an additional charge that comes with a transit option, there's an opportunity for dealers to see potentially increased profits, Cionittisays. Some school districts have chipped in to pay for additional transit systems on a limited basis.

"While transit options are often not covered by some payors, it's important that we as an industry continue to articulate the difference that a transitapproved system can make to a consumer's daily life," Morrison commented.

Indeed, funding is a concern in providing both WC20 seating and WC19-compliant wheelchairs. Mike Babinec, product manager of Invacare, says consumers want power chairs tied down for transportation and brackets added to their chairs — and at no cost to them.

Future trends are pointing towards manufacturers offering brackets on just about all of their manual and power pediatric chairs, Babinec says.

Only a few Group 2 chairs have transport brackets available, but this, too, will likely change.

"In the early days, brackets looked as though they were added as an afterthought," Babinec says. "Now they are being integrated into the initial design of the chair. For power chairs, this helps improve battery and controller access for the RTS, and improves aesthetics for the user."

Chris Braun, president of Convaid, says most wheelchairs his company sells are equipped with WC19 components and accessories. "The consumer has always had the option of WC19 transport or non-transport, but now the majority are WC19 compliant. Ten to 15 years ago, it was probably flipped a little bit, where the majority were non-WC19."

And there will be more adjustments coming for WC19 transport requirements.

"We are already making changes to products that will be affected by the upcoming developments," Braun says. "We have been at the forefront of most of the WC19 requirements as they pertain to wheelchairs and stroller-type wheelchairs."

A potential design requirement that is being considered for WC19 chairs involves the restraint system, Braun adds. He says there's been some discussion about different types of anchor points within vehicles, along with talk concerning accessibility for seatbelts to be fed through specific locations on the wheelchairs. Convaid is in the process of developing new products for testing. Each product will be tested both internally and by the University of Michigan.

"The opinion here is that the safety aspect is priority one for our company," he says, "and I believe that the industry itself is really starting to see the value in that approach as well."

This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of Mobility Management.

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