In Colorado: Wheelchair Repair Law Is Already Transforming Lives
Coloradans are reaping the benefits of the state’s newly enacted wheelchair repair law, getting access to software and settings that manufacturers used to exclusively control.
Robin Bouldoc and her husband Bruce Goguen love to go for hikes in and around their home in Colorado. That might - at first glance - seem unusual. After all, Bruce suffers from primary, progressive multiple sclerosis (MS), a degenerative illness. He requires a power wheelchair equipped with a respirator and a device that allows him to control the chair using head movements.
But modern, power wheelchairs- equipped for outdoor use- make it possible and Bruce and Robin are fond of hiking Wilderness on Wheels, a wheelchair accessible trail in Colorado to enjoy the outdoors and the scenery together.
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So when Bruce recently got a new wheelchair, a Quantum Rival by the manufacturer Pride Mobility, they were excited to hit the trails. The Quantum Rival comes equipped with a range of operating modes that adjust the chair’s speed and other movements for inside use, ordinary outdoor use (like walking the dog) and even for jogging and wheelchair hiking. What mode the chair is in is configurable via a mobile application - or “programmer.”
There was only one problem: Robin and Bruce weren’t allowed to use the programmer application. Like other power wheelchair makers, Pride Mobility - citing safety concerns -insisted that only its authorized technicians adjust wheelchair parameters using the programmer application.
Like going to the Genius Bar to adjust your volume
Practically, that was a nightmare, Bouldoc said, especially during the ‘honeymoon’ period with Bruce’s new chair, as the couple worked to get it configured to his needs, requiring lots of experimentation to get the settings right.
Take the chair’s “sleep” function. “It’s just like your computer,” Bouldoc explains. “(The chair) goes to sleep if you are not using it.” As initially configured by the manufacturer’s authorized service technician, however, Bruce’s chair’s sleep function was set to one minute. “We had to wake it up continually – even while waiting to cross the street,” Bouldoc said.
The chair’s speed settings were also off. “The first time that we went for a walk on some bike trails, we found that the chair was set for too slow to cross wide-lane busy streets,” she said.
Bouldoc wanted to be able to adjust those settings - extending the sleep period to 5 minutes for example. To do that, however, she had to get in touch with her local wheelchair service vendor and make an appointment to have a technician come out and visit her and Bruce. There, using the companion mobile programmer mobile app for the Quantum Rival, they would make small adjustments to the chair’s settings. The wait for those appointments could be days or even weeks.
“Its like having to go to the Apple store every time that you want to adjust the volume on your phone,” Bouldoc said.
Wheelchair access: fixed!
But that was before January 1st, 2023, when Colorado became the first state in the nation to enact a right to repair for power wheelchairs. That law gave Bouldoc and Goguen a legal right to access the administrative features of Bruce’s chair.
This month, the couple was among the first to enjoy the fruits of the new law: getting access to the programmer application, configuration settings and repair information that were previously unavailable to them.
That’s not a surprise. Robin and Bruce were among the most vocal advocates for passing the wheelchair right to repair bills. Their stories of waiting days or weeks for visits from authorized repair technicians for even simple repairs - like a broken tip wheel on Bruce’s chair - helped persuade Colorado legislature to pass the wheelchair repair law in 2022. It was signed into law by Colorado’s Governor, Jared Polis, in June and guarantees wheelchair users and independent repair providers access to documentation, parts, embedded software and firmware as well as tools and software needed to conduct power wheelchair repairs.
The couple’s struggles with the artificially constrained wheelchair repair market were also featured in PIRG’s report Stranded, which highlighted the plight of power wheelchair users.
Time to exercise (your rights)!
Bouldoc actually began pressing Pride Mobility for access to the programmer application in December, before the new Bill of Rights took effect. That was driven by necessity, she said.
“There have been numerous programming issues – which is common with a new complex chair. Issues like the turning speed being too fast, increasing the outdoor speed, etc.”
Still: it was unclear what Pride Mobility’s response to her request would be -before or after January 1st. Robin and Bruce’s local service provider, a company named FWD Mobility, informed them that they couldn’t authorize them to use the programmer. That decision had to come from Pride Mobility, the manufacturer.
The wording of the Colorado law doesn’t explicitly grant access to programmer applications and Bouldoc said the company initially said it needed to review the wording of the law before it responded. But Pride Mobility eventually concluded that Bouldoc and Goguen were entitled to access to the programmer under the new law.
Logistically, Bouldoc only required a password from Pride Mobility that enabled her to download the programmer application onto her phone. What followed was an appointment with a service representative at their home in late January where Robin was given access to the programmer for Bruce’s chair and shown how to use it.
“They were all great –they gave me access to the app which allows me to program the chair. As I told them, all I want is the ability to set speed parameters. They showed me that.”
Bouldoc said the programer app is “a bit complicated as it is intended for rehab engineers.” She hopes that a more user-friendly version of the programmer was in the works. Still, she gave the manufacturer high marks. “All-in-all, I felt like they embraced the ability of allowing end-users to have access to basic programming,” Bouldoc said of Pride Mobility.
Her first change to the chair was a minor adjustment. “I added a higher speed mode for attendant control so Bruce and I can go for a slow run together outside,” she said. “We’ll see how it goes.”
Beyond giving couples like Robin and Bruce more control over their lives, access to programmer applications will also streamline repairs for Colorado power wheelchair users - a major benefit of the new law.
Before the law went into effect, wheelchair repairs typically had three stages. First, users needed to report malfunctions to their local authorized service provider. That provider would then schedule a visit from a technician to diagnose the problem, often: reading error codes from a programmer application. If the repair required ordering parts, or extra time to complete, the technician would need to schedule a follow up visit during which the repair would take place. The total wait often added up to weeks or even months - even for simple repairs.
Giving regular users access to the programmer applications will simplify that process, Bouldoc said.
“Now when the chair malfunctions, we will be able to call a technician at the manufacturer and will be able to give them information (error messages) by which to problem-solve,” Bouldoc wrote. “Previously, Bruce would have been without his chair until a vendor or manufacturer tech came to the house,” she wrote.
While there may be repairs that require waits, access to the programmer will shorten those waits, she said.
On wheelchair repair: so far, so good
Advocates for the wheelchair repair law say the indications, so far, are that Coloradans who use power wheelchairs are taking advantage of their new rights.
“I knew that helping even just one person have a better life as a result of this law was a big win. I'm delighted to know that Mr. Bouldoc is able to have a better quality of life with access to the proper tools," said state representative Brianna Titone, one of the original sponsors of the wheelchair right to repair bill.
Danny Katz, the Executive Director of COPIRG, the Colorado branch of the Public Interest Research Group, said that his group is hearing other stories like Robin’s from people who have successfully used the law to obtain service and repair information and access to software. “We'll watchdog the law to make sure that success is being experienced across the state,” he said.
Julie Reiskin, the Co- Executive Director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, which led the charge to get the wheelchair law passed, said even a change as small as access to the password to download the programmer application is a huge win for couples like Robin and Bruce.
“We are thrilled that the law was able to work so quickly and enabled Robin and Bruce to solve a problem --lack of access to this password was making a very expensive and necessary chair unusable for Bruce and the simple ability to get the password gave them back the freedom that they deserve,” Reiskin wrote in an email.
Repair rolls on
The success in Colorado has spurred proposals for similar laws in other states, including Tennessee, Connecticut and Montana, according to Nathan Proctor, national campaign director for right to repair at US PIRG.
Representative Titone said she has had legislators from other states reach out for more information to bolster their efforts to pass similar laws.
The future of those bills is uncertain. (Anti-repair groups have a greater than 99% success rate in killing off repair legislation.) However, Proctor says that the success of the Colorado bill has kindled an interest of the broader disabilities community in promoting similar laws targeting impediments imposed by service and repair monopolies.
The issues are complex - involving both access to parts and information, but also billing practices by private insurers as well as Federal Medicare and state Medicaid programs. Those policies -which vary from state to state - can impact the availability and quality of wheelchair repair by determining the market conditions for repairs.
In fact, Colorado’s wheelchair reforms involved both the right to repair bill, and another piece of legislation reforming the state’s Medicaid program with regard to billing and paying for wheelchair service and repair.
That requires repair advocates to be flexible going forward as they look to win similar rights in other states. “We are just trying to help however we are asked because we believe repair monopolies are bad, harmful and that people are better off with choices,” Proctor said.
Editor’s Note: this article was updated to add comments from Colorado Representative Brianna Titone. PFR 2/18/2023