Rigid vs. Folding: A Cyclical Preference for Parents?

In a perfect world, there would be ample funding to cover a child’s clinical needs, and just as much funding to ensure that the prescribed seating & mobility equipment could be easily used at home and in the community.

In the real world, funding is limited even for medically justified technology, and factors such as accessibility and transportability can be relegated to secondary priorities. In those situations, families often must figure out how to compensate.

The result: An interesting history on the popularity of rigid vs. folding tilt-in-space chairs for kids, along with a possible cyclical pattern of preference.

Says Mike Nordquist, director of marketing & product development for Freedom Designs: “When tilt-in-space wheelchairs came out, they were all rigid chairs; none of them folded. They were very heavy-duty pieces of equipment. When I was working at Sunrise, we had one of the biggest-selling chairs, the Zippie TS. The adult version was the Quickie TS. And they didn’t fold.”

Nordquist called Freedom Designs’ introduction of the Libre, a folding tilt-in-space chair, revolutionary because “not everybody has the ability to drive a van.” A folding tilt-in-space design made it possible for parents to pack the chair into smaller vehicles, he says, which greatly simplified transportation for many families.

“It’ll fit into the trunk of a car,” Nordquist says. “I can still put it into a van if I own a van, but if (Mom) wants to run to the supermarket and Dad’s gone with the van, she can put the kids in the car and go. It meant a lot more freedom.”

But the story doesn’t end there.

“People realized that every time you make something that has more moving parts, like this chair that folded, then you run the risk of things wearing out sooner or things breaking down,” Nordquist says. “So right when the market was going crazy for folding frames, we had to figure out how to make the rigid frame market attractive again.

“Invacare came out with the Solara, and it was a center-of-gravity tilt-in-space chair. Greatest thing since sliced bread. Now we’re going back to rigid, and it’s easy to sell a rigid chair, especially when it’s a center-of-gravity tilt chair because that’s all the bells and whistles, and you can associate the rigid chair with durability.”

The popularity at that time of larger automotive vehicles such as SUVs meshed well with rigid-framed chairs. But more recent economic events have once again swung consumer interest toward folding-frame chairs.

“Now you’ve got all these people who are out of work,” Nordquist says. “They have one car, it’s a small car, they can’t afford to put gas in a van, and they have rigid chairs. So people again start looking for something simpler that can fit in smaller vehicles. Not specifically for gas mileage, but it’s just that whole shift again in the paradigm.

“The problem with folding tilt-in-space chairs is they’re associated with durability issues and maintenance issues and maybe leaving Mom and Dad stranded if the chair breaks down,” he says. “Rigid chairs are associated with strength and durability, but you have to have a vehicle to put the rigid chair in.”

Fortunately for consumers and the complex rehab professionals who work with them, Nordquist says, “On both sides of the coin, the products have to be good, and really, most of them are.” Time will tell if the two different types of designs will continue to be associated with certain characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, or whether advances in design and natural product evolutions will eventually give one design a permanent edge over the other in the opinion of Mom and Dad.

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

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