Editor’s Note

We Don’t Need Another Hero

Every so often, the mainstream world — the one that thinks parking illegally in a handicapped space is OK because “I’ll only be here for 10 minutes” — decides that people who use wheelchairs need rescuing.

The last time, it was Johnson & Johnson — they of Band-Aid bandages and Listerine mouthwash — who blessed us with the iBOT stair-climbing gyroscopic power wheelchair.

I know some consumers and clinicians really liked the iBOT; that’s not my point. What annoyed me was that iBOT’s inventor and J&J were giddy with their self-praise — and the mainstream media ate it up, seemingly without confirming what was true. “Revolutionary” was used so often by the likes of Dateline NBC that you would have thought the word was part of the iBOT’s official name. What I didn’t see were opinions from OTs, PTs and rehab technology suppliers who work everyday with wheelchairs and the people who use them.

Had those folks been questioned by reporters, they might have pointed out that iBOT — which required excellent trunk control and arm strength, offered few positioning options and was available only with a joystick — was not a solution for everyone. Nor was stair-climbing the number-one challenge in every wheelchair user’s life.

iBOT ceased production three years ago. But if you’re nostalgic for media hyperbole, fear not. Thanks to the MV-1, an accessible car by VPG, reporters are once again throwing around superlatives without seeking comment from industry experts who could provide a more complete story.

The MV-1 isn’t that new. In August 2010, I saw the car as it made a national tour of shopping malls and rehab hospitals. That’s when I learned VPG was bypassing the adaptive automotive dealer network. Instead, the MV-1 would be sold directly to the public.

Mainstream praise for the MV-1 has been effusive.

For instance, from msnbc.com reporter Dan Carney: “The MV-1 looks like a stretched Honda Element. Despite its boxy, ungainly proportions, the car is beautiful to its intended customers — people in wheelchairs.”

Is Carney saying that people in wheelchairs don’t know an ugly car when they see one? Or just that they’ll happily lower their standards because they’re desperate?

“Until now,” Carney continues, “wheelchair-bound drivers had to convert a minivan to accept a necessary ramp or lift. That process chops through major structural parts, leaving the hacked van with diminished ride and handling and uncertain crash protection, according to VPG retail president Dave Schembri.” The story also quotes Harley Holt, described as a consultant on government regulatory issues for carmakers, as saying, “Converted minivans just don’t work because they don’t have separate bodies and chassis and it kills them when they are cut in half by converters.”

Treating a manufacturer’s disparaging word about his competitor as true without fact checking? That’s just lazy journalism.

And why wasn’t the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA) interviewed? Or one of NMEDA’s certified dealers? If the accessibility process truly “chops” up a vehicle and turns it into a “hacked van,” why do OEMs such as Chrysler, GM and Toyota participate so enthusiastically in mobility programs? Why aren’t the media questioning those sorts of quotes?

In response to multiple stories like these, NMEDA and several adaptive automotive manufacturers have created a site — http://www.multivu.com/ — to educate consumers and maybe some reporters, too.

This isn’t about being afraid of “outsiders” entering the industry or launching competitive products. This is about education and accuracy in reporting. It’s about acknowledging that wheelchair users can decide for themselves what consumer products they truly want and need. They don’t need others making Big-Brother decisions for them.

There’s a difference between thinking you’re helping and actually helping. And if reporters or anyone else needs assistance in discerning that difference, I wish they would just ask.

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Mobility Management.

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at lwatanabe@1105media.com.

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