ATP Series

First Ultralights: Dealing with Demos

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Todd Richardson, ATP, Eastern Regional Sales Manager for Motion Composites, knows first hand the impact a wheelchair user’s first ultralight can have.

“When you’re in a room, staring at the ceiling, trying to go to sleep at night, it’s a dark place,” he said, remembering his days in rehab after a motorcycle accident. “You don’t know how any of it’s going to go, and if it’s even worth doing at that point: ‘I’m going to be sitting around in a wheelchair.’ So that first chair was very important to how quickly I recovered, and it did affect my recovery the first year or two.”

Richardson doesn’t entirely remember his first wheelchair assessment and acknowledged that in those early days of rehab, “I figured, ‘They’re still going to work on my legs, we’re going to get my legs going again.’

“My focus was on walking again, and maybe the PTs were like ‘Don’t bring up the wheelchair, he thinks he’s going to walk again.’ In 1987, I don’t think we had near as many positive role models. We certainly didn’t have the exposure to people going forward in chairs and living super productive lives like we do today.”

His first ultralight — with a 20" back, 8" casters and airless inserts — wasn’t the greatest match for his athletic lifestyle: “I broke three or four [casters]. I’d get caster flutter going, I’d catch them on something. I was a kid who raced motocross. I would use my chair fairly aggressively.

“The first couple of years were horrible in that first chair. I still have my left foot turned in slightly because I couldn’t get through my home with both legrests on the chair. I had to just use one footplate and cross my feet and go through the home like that. There was no home visit back then. That was completely non-existent.”

A Career & a Calling

After he tried out a rigid, custom-fit chair and ordered his own, Richardson began working in the complex rehab industry. And as an ATP, he remembered his experiences as a wheelchair user.

“Demos are huge, trying people in demos and seeing how things unfold,” he said. “Wheelchairs are almost like clothing: Different brands tend to fit a little bit differently, even with the same exact specs. We had three chairs, at least, to try. We would say, ‘The strengths and weaknesses of this chair are this, the strengths and weaknesses based on past experiences of this chair are this. What goals do you have that we need to set your chair up for? A setup more for indoors, a setup more for outdoors, those two setups are very different. What’s your environment like, what’s your house like, what’s the soil at home like?’ You want to get in your mind’s eye how the chair is going to be used.

“And then typically, I like to get them in a demo and adjust it to them, so they can get a good, accurate beginning, and let them try it for a few days. Then I go back to them after a week. It’s not just a one-time eval, if at all possible.”

A Self-Evaluation

If Richardson went back in time to do an eval for his newly injured, younger self, what would he observe? What would he suggest?

“At 22, that really did define me,” he said of his athletic pursuits. “I would think, ‘This kid’s going to be active, probably going to be a little rough on chairs. He’s probably going to be technically minded and the dude was probably fit.’ I would set up a very reactive chair and probably something minimalist, not a lot of extra stuff on it. Heavily performance based.”

While components such as anti-tippers, seat belts and armrests can sound like safeguards, Richardson said, “That can lead to false dependencies. You put an armrest on a chair that’s not truly needed for that person, and the next thing you know, maybe they develop a reliance on that armrest for transfers and pressure relief. Now you’ve got something on the chair that really inhibits their mobility and their freedom to get into their car quickly, slide out of the chair easily and efficiently. Some people need items on the chair that others don’t. It’s about each individual.”

He recalled an eval for a young woman who’d been injured from falling off a roof.

“The most terrifying feeling in the world for her would be getting into the chair and having the [center of gravity] too far forward and having the chair tip backwards,” he said. “That would be it for that demo: ‘I’m done, I don’t want to see this chair again.’ So you have to be sure in that case to move that center of gravity back, go for a little more stability initially and work from there. Don’t put her in a situation where she’s going to feel that sensation again. Let her warm up to this and feel safe and secure, so she feels like, ‘This is okay, I’m not going to be injured trying these totally new things.’ Keep that individual’s history in mind.”

Writing a Success Story

As an ATP, Richardson learned the many challenges of specifying an optimal ultralight. And he also has a client’s perspective: “My self image maybe wasn’t quite as good as it could have been in a very sleek, tight, maneuverable, tucked chair that let me have the mobility I needed.”

Because rehab stays are so short for spinal cord injury clients, Richardson suggests giving new users plenty of demo time. “It’s great to push around in a showroom with hard carpeting that was made for mobility, and you can think something for five minutes when you have people watching you, waiting to hear your reaction,” he said. “The client may think, ‘They got this for me because we thought it was a good direction, so I should like it.’ I don’t want that. I want them to go home, when they’re in their own quiet space, and figure it out for themselves.”

Despite the advances in ultralightweight materials and engineering processes, Richardson said the emphasis needs to stay on the consumer. “This industry is so much more about the person than it is just about the technological aspects of any chair,” he said. “When you take the person’s lifestyle, personality, and goals as the priority, you can then help them choose an amazing chair that maximizes their mobility. That’s where the details in the technology then make a huge difference.”

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2020 issue of Mobility Management.