Cost of high-tech wheelchair dampens local excitement

Saturday, August 16, 2003

The new high-tech wheelchair that climbs stairs and raises users to standing height isn't going to have much effect on the lives of people with disabilities until the $29,000 price dramatically lowers, say local wheelchair users and disability advocates.

"If it's going to be out of reach for the average person, life is not going to change for them," said Miki Gudermuth, executive director of the SEMO Alliance for Disability Independence. "They're going to see it as out of range."

The wheelchair, called the iBOT Mobility System, was approved Wednesday by the Food and Drug Administration. Equipped with gyroscopes and sensors, it is difficult enough to operate that a doctor's prescription and training are required. Operating the iBOT also demands some upper body strength and the ability to manipulate its joystick.

Whether Medicare and private insurers will help pay for the wheelchairs is uncertain. Gudermuth said insurers don't like to pay for things that are experimental, new, come with a liability or are seen as a convenience.

"It's like getting a Cadillac versus getting a Volkswagen or something inexpensive," she said.

One of the advantages the iBOT claims is enabling occupants to converse eye to eye with standing people and to make the top shelf in grocery stores accessible.

Gudermuth isn't sure how important that is. Most people who want to talk to her when she's in her wheelchair pull up a chair, she said, or lower themselves. "Most people who have a disability understand they have a disability."

In grocery stores, she asks other customers for help if she can't reach something. She would help if somebody couldn't reach something on a lower shelf, she said. "All of us need help one time or another."

Gudermuth admits that her point of view may be different because she also can walk with crutches. "For somebody that's always in a chair and sees stairs as prohibitive to entering a room, to be included, yes. What price do you put on that kind of independence?"

'Can get a Lexus for that'

Robbie Sanders, a wheelchair tennis and softball player from Cape Girardeau, said he would not use such a chair because it is too bulky, but added, "It has to be an individual choice. Some people need to push their own chair. Somebody else who has a little more trouble getting around could find it useful, especially in an area where there is little to no accessibility."

Sanders was reached in Minneapolis, Minn., where he is competing in the National Wheelchair Softball Tournament. He said most of the players are laughing about the new chair, though he thinks that some of that is macho posturing.

But, he said, "$30,000 for a chair is thievery. You can get a Lexus for that."

So far, no one has called the SADI office to inquire about the iBOT. Most of the nonprofit organization's clients are low income. "All their resources go to prescription drugs, personal assistance or immediate doctor needs," Gudermuth said.

Gudermuth, who grew up in the 1960s, thinks the iBOT may appeal more to younger people. Disabled people now go snowmobiling and water skiing, things older people never dreamed of. She endorses those activities even if she doesn't participate them. "They should be allowed to be as reckless as anyone else," she said.

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