Julie Jennings needs a new seat cushion cover for her powered wheelchair.
She can’t order the new cover directly from the manufacturer and make the fix herself. Instead, she must go through one of the company’s providers. The manufacturer treats seat cushions as durable medical equipment like walkers or canes that must go through proper FDA-approved repairs.
“The technology is velcro and a zipper,” Jennings said. “I think I can handle that.”
A bill on its way to Gov. Jared Polis could make it a lot easier for Jennings and other powered-wheelchair users to repair their equipment. House Bill 1031 would require manufacturers to make parts, tools, repair manuals and digital access available to powered wheelchair owners and independent repairers at reasonable prices.
Proponents of the measure, which passed the legislature, say it is the nation’s first nonvehicular right-to-repair bill. Voters in Massachusetts passed an automotive right-to-repair law in 2013, which manufacturers later decided to use as the national standard.
“We hope this can, similar to the Massachusetts vehicle right-to-repair law, become the law of the land for everybody and benefit all wheelchair users across the country,” said Danny Katz, executive director of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group.
The bill had bipartisan support. The bill was sponsored by Rep. David Ortiz, a Littleton Democrat who uses a wheelchair. Its other prime sponsors were Jefferson County Democrats Rep. Brianna Titone and Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, as well as Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley.
Challenges to making repairs
Jennings needs her wheelchair to get out of bed in the morning.
The Denver native can’t walk because she has multiple sclerosis, and her wheelchair allows her to live independently with the help of outside caregivers. When the machine is in disrepair, it can be a big disruption.
Jennings recently waited almost three months for her armrest, batteries and controller to be replaced. None of the components were specialized or custom, yet the cost for repair was more than $3,000. One repair was done incorrectly, even though it was completed by a certified technician.
As it stands now, Jennings doesn’t have access to some of the key information or parts to make repairs. She said she hopes that with the new bill, she’ll be able to order those new parts or tools herself and have skilled people she knows make the repairs.
“There’s an awful lot of other things for disabled people to worry about,” said Jennings, who testified in front of state lawmakers about the bill. “We shouldn’t have to worry about whether our wheelchair is gonna be fixed in a reasonable amount of time.”
Over the past 10 to 15 years, Katz says, the manufacturing of electric wheelchairs has become increasingly specialized. He said advancements in software have made it more time-consuming and costly for even a small number of repairs.
“If you’re in a wheelchair, days matter,” Katz said. “One day without a wheelchair could be a day bedridden, and that can lead to some serious health problems.”
Loaners from repair shops aren’t ideal for users like Jennings who need more than just a basic wheelchair. Her wheelchair raises and lowers to help her get out of bed, and the footrest also goes up and down to help her avoid circulation problems. She said she doesn’t know what she would do if her wheelchair stopped working and she had to use a loaner.
“It’s kind of like if you were to walk around in shoes that don’t fit,” Jennings said.
Establishing the right to repair
The bill would require powered wheelchair manufacturers to make parts, software, firmware, tools and documentation accessible to owners and independent repairers. Failure to comply with the regulations would be considered a deceptive trade practice subject to a fine of up to $20,000 for each violation.
Allowing more people to make repairs and easier online orders will help wheelchair users in rural areas get their parts fixed more quickly. Katz said the bill will likely drive down repair costs because of increased competition among people able to fix wheelchairs.
“It’s going to create the marketplace that for years we had, but for the last decade, we’ve lost because these manufacturers have an ability to limit our repair options,” Katz said.
Cooke said he pushed for the bill’s passage because he believes in a free market approach to both government and commerce.
“People have a right to repair their stuff,” he said.
The groups that opposed the bill include the Colorado BioScience Association, the Colorado Association of Medical Equipment Services, NuMotion and the National Coalition for Assistive and Rehab Tech.
Opponents testified that more complex repairs done improperly could cause serious injury or start a fire. John Goetz, representing the manufacturer Permobil, said although similar chairs can fit into the same classifications between manufacturers, the company likes to train authorized dealers to understand the nuances of each unique chair.
“We’ve had countless times where somebody has gone and, whether they had a background in it or not, or whether they’re somebody that likes to just work on products, that have caused some serious injuries to individuals,” Goetz testified.
Cooke rejected arguments from representatives of wheelchair companies that their opposition to the bill was based around safety. He thinks they were just trying to protect their bottom line.
“A man’s got to know his limitations,” Cooke said of people making repairs to their belongings. “I know my limitations. I’m not even going to fix my toaster because I’d probably electrocute myself even if it’s unplugged. So these people, if they want to try to fix their wheelchairs, if they can do it, God bless them. And if they can’t, then they should know their limitations.”
Jennings said she wants to see right-to-repair legislation extend beyond the community of wheelchair users to help others who are dependent on technology.
“I’m hoping it will lead the way for other right-to-repair opportunities for people who are not in wheelchairs (but) who have other things that they would like to repair on their own,” Jennings said.
Colorado Sun reporter Jesse Paul contributed to this story.