Wheelchair Users – What Price Independence?

Wheelchairs are like shoes. One size does not fit all. A customised chair makes a lot of difference to the person using it. My first made-to-measure aluminium chair was a folding Japanese-made Max Pleasure Synergy that costs RM5,700 in 2007. I enjoyed a great deal of independence from it. The small footprint made it very maneuvreable. My posture improved tremendously; I was no longer slouching. For the first time in two decades, I actually looked good in a wheelchair.

Unfortunately, the crossbrace fractured after just three years of moderate use. The crossbrace is the X-shaped mechanism that allows the chair to be folded. I have also had the same issue with the crossbraces of two other steel wheelchairs that I used previously. Both were standard off-the-shelf wheelchairs. They were heavy, difficult to push and fitted me badly.

A custom-made wheelchair takes many aspects of the user’s body and needs into account. The width, depth and height of seat from floor all make a difference; so are the sizes of the rear wheels and front casters. One can choose either a folding or rigid chair. A folding chair takes up less space when folded and is easy to store in the car boot. It is also heavier because of the crossbrace. The rigid chair is lighter because it does not have a crossbrace. The rigid wheelchair has less flex of the frame thereby translating to more energy efficient propulsion.

The current wheelchair that I am using is the Tilite ZRA Series 2. This is a rigid wheelchair with its main frame constructed from aerospace-grade titanium tubes. Titanium has better strength-to-weight ratio compared to other materials used for making wheelchairs. It also does not rust and corrode. That makes it durable, an important factor for something that I am totally dependent on for my mobility.

This wheelchair is also twice as expensive. The costliest part is the titanium frame, followed by the rear wheels, shipping and then the cushion. Friends, non-disabled people and wheelchair users as well, asked me why I was willing to cough up so much for a few titanium tubes on wheels when I could have bought another aluminium chair for only half of what I paid or the Tilite ZRA.

In getting a wheelchair, especially for long-term users, the decision cannot be based solely on cost comparison alone. There are other factors to consider like durability and functionality of the wheelchair. The most important factor to consider, however, is the implication from pushing a heavy wheelchair ten or twenty years down the road. The repetitive actions of propelling the wheelchair has been proven to wear out the shoulders in the long run.

An injured shoulder will rob me of my mobility and independence. Should that happen, I may have to depend on someone to help me with my activites of daily living for a period of time pre and post-surgery. The question is do I scrimp on cheaper wheelchairs now and suffer the consequences in the later years or do I take preventive measures now to preserve whatever functions I still have for as long as possible?

For me, the answer is simple: An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. The RM13,000 I paid for the Tilite ZRA Series 2 and cushion is a necessary expenditure albeit a steep one. It is justifiable nonetheless. I am already living with a host of spinal cord injury-related health issues, many I could not have prevented even if I had wanted to. My shoulders I can. This wheelchair is the gift to myself for sustaining a better quality of life in the long term. In that sense, it is worth every sen I paid for it.

Author: Peter Tan

Peter Gabriel Tan. Penangite residing in the Klang Valley. Blissfully married to Wuan. A LaSallian through and through. Minion to three cats. Wheelchair user since 1984. Columnist of Breaking Barriers with The Borneo Post. Principal Trainer at Peter Tan Training specialising in Disability Equality Training. This blog chronicles my life, thoughts and opinions. Connect with me on Twitter and Facebook.