Editor's Note

What Consumers Want

flight of stairs


I recall when I first heard about the Johnson & Johnson iBOT stair-climbing wheelchair. I was working at a motorcycle industry magazine at the time, so I knew something about wheels, but nothing about wheelchairs. I saw a video clip of the iBOT climbing stairs and thought, “What a great innovation.”

Months later, I became editor of a new publication named Mobility Management, and my perspective changed about a lot of things, including how important it was, all things considered, for a wheelchair to climb stairs.

Earlier this year, iBOT, discontinued years ago, was revived via a promised collaboration with Toyota. iBOT is back in the news, and recently, NPR did a story that discussed iBOT as well as walking exoskeletons.

The story was for mainstream readers and therefore pretty basic. A veteran with quadriplegia described how he valued being able to visit friends’ homes that have steps or stairs, and how great it is to talk to people face to face (a relatively under-discussed iBOT ability is seat elevation). Then a pair of physicians who’ve studied the longer-term effects of paralysis sort of downplayed seat elevation to tout the supposedly greater benefits of walking.

More informed during iBOT’s second go-round, I had two thoughts about the NPR report:

  • The benefits of walking as described in the story — improved respiration, digestion, bowel and bladder function — are also benefits of standing. While a limited number of wheelchair users can walk via exoskeleton, a relatively high number can successfully stand via a standing device.
  • Is climbing stairs — or walking — truly the highest priority for most wheelchair users?

A researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, believes not. After studying surveys completed by wheelchair users with spinal cord injuries (SCI), Linda Noble-Haeusslein, Ph.D., and her colleagues chose to focus on trying to restore bowel and bladder function and reduce chronic pain, because those were the top priorities listed in the surveys. If you’re in debilitating pain, if bowel and bladder accidents are a constant worry, how much less active will your days be? How often will those worries confine you?

Everyone is different, so surely some wheelchair users do value stair climbing or walking above all other abilities. Fair enough. But I also think Dr. Noble-Haeusslein is likely right: Researchers, engineers and inventors might assume that wheelchair users yearn to walk above all else simply because that inability is clearly visible.

Maybe this is a reminder that as technology continues to level the playing field for people with disabilities, clinicians and engineers need to keep talking to consumers. There are many forms of mobility, from standing to walking to climbing stairs, and they all have value. Sometimes, the clinical benefit that first springs to mind or the physical limitation that is most visible isn’t what’s most important to the client in front of us. But we could find out if we ask.

This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Mobility Management.

About the Author

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

Mobility Management Podcast