ISS 2013: The Future Starts Here

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- This city is known for its charming hospitality, from live musical performances at the local airport to cab drivers likely to offer unsolicited advice about the best biscuits in town (at the Loveless Café, we're told).

This year, that hospitality extended to seating & mobility consumers and caregivers, who for the first time were invited to tour the International Seating Symposium's (ISS) exhibit hall.

The 29th annual edition of the event also featured more exhibit hall time, as well as a greater emphasis on the consumer's role in the seating & mobility spectrum. Those were appropriate given the event's theme: Building the Future.

Returning to Opryland

As in 2011, the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center hosted the ISS, which alternates annually between the United States and Vancouver, Canada.

The Gaylord Opryland is a sprawling space complete with indoor gardens, three swimming pools, a retail shopping island, a dozen restaurants and a meandering river with riverboat tours -- all under vaulted glass ceilings. It is admittedly an extremely large venue to navigate...but such is the success of the ISS that the event, which had run for years in Orlando with booths set up in hallways and parking lots, needed room to grow.

On Thursday, March 7, ISS Course Director Mark Schmeler, Ph.D., OTR/L, ATP, officially opened the ISS by saying registration had topped the 1,700 mark as of that morning (final attendance was 1,800-plus). More than 100 educational sessions were being offered, attended by professionals from more than 30 countries. And the sold-out exhibit hall featured 112 exhibitors occupying 68,000 square feet.

Welcoming Consumers & Caregivers

Despite impressive numbers and general acknowledgement as the industry's premier seating & mobility event, the ISS had, until this year, lacked an important segment of attendees.

The University of Pittsburgh's Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology Continuing Education closed that gap by inviting consumers to visit the exhibit hall on Wednesday, March 6, the day before the ISS officially got under way.

The free consumer event, dubbed "The Wheelchair User Experience," was supported by United Spinal Association's Users First Alliance, with Amysystems, Permobil, Quantum Rehab and TiLite sponsoring free parking for visitors. On-site estimates by University of Pittsburgh staff put consumer attendance at about 250, with visitors often reporting they'd been told of the event by their therapists.

The focus on consumers continued when the ISS opened the following morning.

After opening the meeting, Schmeler turned the microphone over to mountaineer Mark Wellman of No Limits, who spoke on “Overcoming the Walls of Diversity.” Paralyzed in a mountain-climbing accident, Wellman continued in the sport, and the presentation included photos of his climbs, including Yosemite's El Capitan, North America's largest unbroken face of granite. Wellman also described such equipment as the Snowpod, a hand-powered snowmobile in which one full turn produces one half-inch of forward movement.

Wellman was followed by Chapal Khasnabis of the World Health Organization (WHO), who spoke on “Propelling Forward: A Universal Standard.” Khasnabis discussed current distribution of wheelchairs in developing nations and other countries that lack a specialized seating & mobility infrastructure. In those situations, Khasnabis says, wheelchairs -- including previously used equipment not properly fitted to their new users, or very rudimentary chairs inexpensively produced -- are being distributed without evaluations or follow-through conducted by trained personnel.

"Everyone deserves quality service," Khasnabis said. "Even the poor."

The goal of the WHO's program, he added, is "to change wheelchair distribution to wheelchair provision." To that end, WHO has developed a 40-hour wheelchair-fitting course on DVD, distributed free of cost, to train workers. The hope is that those workers will train others, thereby exponentially increasing the number of educated wheelchair providers in countries that currently have few or none.

The Industry's Next Steps

The final special session of the opening morning was called “Development of an Outcomes Management System for Mobility,” presented by Richard M. Schein, Ph.D., MPH, and Andi Saptono, Ph.D., both from the University of Pittsburgh.

Their discussion centered around measuring outcomes for quality assurance using data supplied by clinicians and seating & mobility providers. The data included consumers' diagnoses, the equipment they originally used, subsequent equipment, and the results of using that equipment.

The purpose of measuring outcomes is to determine the effectiveness of the prescribed and provided seating & mobility technology -- information that funding sources, legislators and other stakeholders commonly look to the industry to provide. Proving favorable outcomes plays an important part in building a successful future for seating & mobility technology, including appreciation for the equipment and the professionals who recommend and supply it. As Schmeler noted in his opening remarks, in the seating & mobility industry "It's time to hunker down and figure out how to move forward."

Moving forward, Schmeler added, needs to happen with the full participation of consumers so that "It's not 'those people'; it's 'us.'"

Keynote speaker Paul Tobin, MSW, president/CEO of United Spinal Association, talked about “The Patient as an Empowered Consumer: Obstacles and Opportunities for the Rehab Patient in Patient-Centered Care.” A former naval officer, Tobin told of how he sustained a spinal cord injury while body surfing: "I had instantly transformed to 'Paul Tobin, patient.' It happens in an instant. The car I drove to the beach in that day, I couldn't even get into, let alone drive."

Tobin talked about how, in that situation, patients go from being independent to being dependent, and from socially active to socially isolated.

He also mentioned the current healthcare situation in the United States where current and former veterans have access to services and benefits that civilians do not.

"That disparity is what drives me," he said, pointing out that while the American public is supportive of veterans, their feelings don't extend to others with disabilities.

Tobin added that most people, even legislators and staffers who regularly meet with disability advocates, still do not understand the challenges that people with disabilities face.

"Can you imagine telling CMS [Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services], 'I need a seat elevator because I travel a lot'? The ignorance is so pervasive in the very halls that we go into."

Building the Future

Part of building a successful future landscape for assistive technology provision, development and usage will depend on overcoming a long list of obstacles, Tobin said, including a bias against wheelchairs (i.e., "It is not normal to sit in a wheelchair, it is normal to walk") and a social stigma against people with disabilities.

Tobin also urged seating & mobility professionals to be honest with the consumers they work with, even on uncomfortable or frustrating topics such as funding limitations.

"Can the patient be truly informed with only partial knowledge?" Tobin asked.

At this ISS, with its focus on the consumer, it was a point well taken and one surely to be discussed at future events. After all, the 30th ISS, March 4-7 in Vancouver, is already taking abstract submissions, with a deadline of May 31.

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at

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