my electric wheelchair has been in the shop since mid-October, quite a drag since it severely cuts into my independence. I was forced to have it looked at because the darned thing kept going off on its own. On one occasion it left me spinning in circles and slamming off walls and glass windows for a good 20 seconds during an outing to Skydome. As I've since found out, however, others haven't been so lucky. At least two people died south of the border when their wheelchairs burst into flames. My own was part of a recall a couple of years back because of a problem with the battery kit. But I only learned recently about the chairs catching fire and killing people, which is a good thing, since it would have freaked me out entirely.
Motion Specialties, the company servicing my chair, can't seem to isolate why the machine is misbehaving. They've offered to put in a new controller, but it's unsettling -- to put it mildly -- that they can't assure me the chair won't go off again.
Amber Bryce, a customer service rep at Motion, leaves me a message saying the company has "some suspicions about the wiring as well in the joystick and the PCB board. We're not sure. Basically, we want you to give it a go and keep us posted."
Call me a guinea pig. The best guess the company can offer, Bryce says, is that the light and tilt switches on my chair may be "acting as an extra antenna" picking up electromagnetic waves in the air that cause it to go berserk.
In 2000, my machine was part of a massive recall by its Elyria, Ohio-based manufacturer, Invacare. At that point the company just replaced my battery without letting on that the recall was initiated because of deaths. Now that I'm on the information trail, I've discovered that in August the firm settled for $7 million with a quadriplegic woman who was badly burned in her chair by a fire sparked by defective wiring.
Invacare says it was quick to order a recall, including 215,000 chairs and covering all 16 models, even though it was initiated more than a year after reports of the first death reached the company.
Invacare issued a statement in early September (after news reports publicized the incidents) attributing the fires to "the configuration of our battery wiring harness (that) could short and create a potential for fire."
However, complaints filed with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration turn up concerns about wiring dating back to 1993. The FDA also has in its files complaints about Invacare wheelchairs going off by themselves.
Tucson, Arizona-based lawyer Douglas Clark, who settled a suit brought by one of his clients in August, says he's seen the pleadings in two other lawsuits against Invacare. The firm's been in denial mode from the very beginning, he says. "That's been their standard operating procedure."
Over the phone, Pat Gallagher, senior vice-president of Invacare's Cleveland PR firm, Edward Howard & Co., does his best to be reassuring. There have been no serious incidents reported in Canada, although all affected chairs were to have a fuse installed that handles short-circuits and costs less than $5.
Gallagher says there have been no product recalls related to unintended movement of a power wheelchair in Canada or the U.S.
Although this type of thing can happen, he claims it has always been traced to an external factor, not a product design defect. The company or distributor have generally been able to trace the problem and correct it.
When I contact Robert Fraser, Invacare Canada's service supervisor at its Mississauga national head office, he tells me my chair is supposed to shut down "if the electronics should be disrupted in any way by some outside signal or radio."
He adds that "the prospect of one of these chairs going off on its own without any operator input was something (the company) thought from a legal perspective was just unacceptable. We've safety engineered them not to do that."
Well, they may have, but it didn't stop my chair from self-propelling. Fraser says I've definitely piqued his curiosity and that he or someone at Invacare will "definitely follow through" and get back to me.
But despite emerging evidence about the high incidence and severity of wheelchair-related injuries, regulations governing wheelchair safety are almost non-existent in Canada.
Meanwhile, I have opted to use my 10-year-old backup chair for the time being. It's terribly unsuited to travelling by regular bus or on the subway -- I fear its thin wheels will get stuck on the platforms.
Also I'm unable to press elevator buttons or use my cellphone, functions my other chair's tray helped me complete.
What's bizarre is how much safer I feel in this dinosaur chair, even though in 1998 I fell and broke my leg in it after a wheel collapsed. The high-tech, highfalutin Invacare model is just too blinkin' scary.