Modern-day wheelchairs can come with so many options, it's difficult not to compare them to cars. Highly specialized ones can cost as much as $30,000.

Modern-day wheelchairs can come with so many options it's difficult not to compare them to cars. Highly specialized ones can cost as much as $30,000.


Victor Stimpert, a 20-year-old community college student from Toluca with cerebral palsy, has a motorized wheelchair that elevates, reclines and, because of front-wheel drive, turns on a dime.


"It has lights, it has turn signals, it's pretty much like a car," Stimpert says.


But the right wheelchair has to fit as comfortably as the right shoe.


"Improperly fitted equipment can be just as bad as not having equipment," says Eric Holman of RehabTech. Holman is what's called an assistive technology professional, or ATP. He works with patients and therapists at Easter Seals and the Illinois Neurological Institute of OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, trying to determine the wheelchair that best suits a patient's needs and their bodies.


"We've heard a lot of horror stories (about ill-fitting wheelchairs)," says Amanda Kilgore, a physical therapist at Illinois Neurological Institute.


Motorized or manual, the wheelchair has moved far beyond a tool for basic mobility. Manufacturers have made major advances in the past 15 years or so, Holman says, in applying new technology, resulting in high-style convenience.


With so many new options available, physical disabilities have spawned a new field - assistive technology - and an industry of customized wheelchairs with custom-molded cushions, high-tech electronics, national trade shows and local wheelchair clinics where patients' needs are assessed and new wheelchairs given the initial test drive.


Manual wheelchairs are now made of flexible, light materials, such as titanium. Driving controls on power wheelchairs are more reliable.


"They used to break down a lot," Holman says.


Just as Stimpert's power wheelchair can elevate, recline and turn on a dime, new high-tech wheelchairs can take a person to standing position or lower the seat to the floor so a small child could, conceivably, crawl into the chair from floor level and raise the chair to standard sitting position. There are power chairs that can be propelled by a joystick or by sensors embedded in the headrest, allowing it to be guided or driven by merely moving the head from one position to another. There's even a new wheelchair out with Bluetooth capabilities.


They come in different widths and depths to accommodate a person's height and weight. They come in different colors.


Assistive technology includes any item that increases, maintains or improves an individual's ability to function. That can include communication devices, as well as mobility equipment, says Gretchen Meyer, a therapist at Easter Seals.


"There was a time we had to take a basic wheelchair, like one you'd find in a mall, then build a seat, a back and all of the support components with plywood and foam," Meyer says.


Today, the process can take an average of four to six months, from initial assessments, recommendations, physician's approval, funding approval to delivery. The process can take longer if the funding source, typically private insurers or Medicaid, denies approval for the recommended equipment.


"Evaluating and making recommendations is only one aspect, but it's probably the most complicated because everybody's needs are different, everybody's physical status is different," Meyer says.


Pam Adams can be reached at 686-3245 or padams@pjstar.com.