Choice Seating

However you roll, wheelchair accessories can enhance your mobility and independence

Manufacturer, brand and model are merely the first choices in the methodical process of wheelchair seating assessment. These days, it’s wheelchair accessories that present the widest selection and biggest potential for enhancing independence and mobility. There are accessories for comfort, attachments for smoother rides and additions designed to maximize independence for people living with neuromuscular diseases. 

This brief roundup of proven and promising products can help you make sense of the vast accessories market. Be sure to consult with your MDA Care Center team for help selecting the best mobility equipment to meet your needs.

Manual chair accessories

Some of the most ingenious accessories to become available within the past several years are those meant to maximize comfort and mobility for people using manual wheelchairs. 

“With muscular dystrophy, we talk about conserving energy and optimizing function and efficiency,” says Laura Case, an assistant professor and occupational therapist who works with MDA families at the MDA Care Center at Duke University.   

Casters for tighter turns, brake tips for easier grip and levers for distance all maintain manual chairs’ advantages without overtiring users. Spinergy’s FlexRims ($1,270) have become a favorite custom touch among wheelchair users, occupational therapists and assistive technology professionals. The rubber-like rims make for a tight grip that is easy on hands and shoulders. Bonus: The supple rims allow an approximately 1-inch give when pushing through tight entries and hall spaces.  

Power-assist attachments have been equipping manual wheelchairs with as-needed motors for several years. In August 2015, Max Mobility rolled out the second version of its popular Smart Drive attachment. SmartDrive MX2 ($6,655) packages driving, turning and stopping power into an impressively small, lightweight attachment. A Bluetooth-connected wristband detects the most nuanced of hand motions and communicates them to the motor, so that a soft push of the wheels gets a chair rolling for up to 12 miles. A light tap stops it on a dime — even on hills.

Power wheelchair accessories

In the power wheelchair world, occupational therapist Katie Rybczynski sees lightning-fast advances not only in attachable devices but also in the manner that individuals access them. “Access methods are one of the first things I look at in a seating assessment,” she says. “Right now we’re playing around with a lot of exciting products.” Rybczynski, who is part of the MDA Care Center team at Washington University School of Medicine, works with people with neuromuscular diseases in a weekly augmentative speech clinic at The Rehabilitation Institute of St. Louis. They have been using stylus, head-array, joystick and eyegaze technologies to control their augmentative speech systems for a while; what’s new is the ability to control those systems —as well as many other functions — wirelessly. 

Curtiss-Wright’s various Bluetooth Modules ($200) pair with any computer, tablet or device, including augmentative speech devices. Health care professionals like Rybczynski can then select a controller that best matches the user’s “most consistent movement,” such as a Curtiss-Wright’s new CJSM2 Joystick ($350) or the hands-free Blue2 Bluetooth Switch by Ablenet ($179).

This summer, Stealth Products launched its new Bluetooth i-Drive system, ($2,300 to $3,600), which allows wheelchair users to wirelessly control systems using head and facial movements — perfect for individuals who have trouble manipulating switches and joysticks by hand.

Seating accessories

Although cushions are associated with comfort, they are often considered essential, and all or part of their cost may be covered by insurance. “One focus of wheelchair assessment is to determine the chair’s base — frame, type of power, power positioning components, power standing, etc.,” Case says. “The other critical focus is seating.” Comfort Company’s new Vicair Vector X cushion ($300-$400) contains air chambers that can be added or removed to account for imbalances in body posture and to relieve pressure sores. Aquila Corporation’s recently developed SofTech ($4,300) is a cushion system that automatically changes pressure distribution to prevent pressure sores. What’s new is the battery, pump and controller are built right into the cushion.

Shaila Wunderlich is a St. Louis-based freelance journalist who has worked for a variety of magazines, journals and newspapers for nearly 20 years. 

Knowledge Source: Five Tips for Building a Better Chair

The category of wheelchair accessories is not just huge; it’s growing exponentially. Combine this with spotty insurance coverage and the progressive nature of muscular dystrophy and related muscle-debilitating diseases, and you’re left with one overwhelmingly complicated purchasing process. 

“It’s an exciting time to be in this field — on the other hand, Medicare and Medicaid are not keeping up,” says Andrea Van Hook, communications manager for RESNA, the society for assistive technology professionals (ATPs). “Access is becoming more restricted at a time when innovation and technology are exploding.” 

How do you keep up with the constantly changing marketplace? The answer is simple — but not easy. “You have to be your own advocate,” says Van Hook. Here are her top tips:

1. Keep up on what’s new. Subscribe to mobility-related magazines, websites and blogs. Keep files of tear sheets and notes. Attend expos, if possible. 

2. Establish an ongoing relationship with certified occupational therapists (OT) affiliated with an MDA Care Center and assistive technology professionals (ATP). Wheelchair assessments always involve OTs and ATPs. Call them, and send them notes and links as you hear of relevant accessories. Visit RESNA to find an ATP in your area, or consult with your MDA Care Center team for assistance.

3. Choose your accessories when choosing your wheelchair. “That way the accessories can be customized according to your chair and measurements,” says Laura Case, assistant professor and physical therapist at Duke University. It also saves money, as insurance requires accessories be deemed medically necessary by a professional assessment.

4. “Test drive” the equipment as much as possible. Most manufacturers don’t permit their equipment to be tested outside the clinical setting, but you may be able to request additional testing time above the average two-to-three-hour assessment appointment. Another smart move: Ask your OT or ATP for references of other patients using the accessory in question. Last but not least, remember most manufacturers limit product returns to 30 days. Do all your test-driving and question-asking within that time period. 

5. Seek alternative funding. When a desired accessory isn’t covered, contact the manufacturer directly to ask about alternative funding, such as grants or financing.

MDA Resource Center: We’re Here For You

Our trained specialists are here to provide one-on-one support for every part of your journey. Send a message below or call us at 1-833-ASK-MDA1 (1-833-275-6321). If you live outside the U.S., we may be able to connect you to muscular dystrophy groups in your area, but MDA programs are only available in the U.S.

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