An estimated half million physically disabled Americans are totally dependent on wheelchairs whose stagnant design and exorbitant prices have been set by one multinational corporation and reinforced by decades of government policy. The company is the Los Angeles-based Everest & Jennings (E&J), the world’s largest wheelchair manufacturer.
Wheelchair design today, unlike the technology of improved medical treatment, is basically the same as it was in 1935 — the result of the history of the industry and its profitable relations with the U.S. government.
The Veterans Administration, by being the biggest single customer for wheelchairs and by originally establishing standards and specifications to fit the typical E & J chair, has helped this company to perpetuate its obsolete design, unreliable maintenance, exorbitant purchase and repair costs, and dominance of the industry. E & J is now a multinational operating in Germany, England, Canada, and Mexico. Competitors have had to imitate E & J to mine the rich V.A. market.
Since more than 50% of all wheelchairs are bought partially with Federal and State funds, taxpayers, as well as the disabled, have had to bear the burden of inflated prices.
Both manual and power chairs need repairs constantly which can take months. This further benefits the industry since most users must buy or rent a second chair to be mobile during repairs. E & J profits more than 100% on many parts, even for simple parts available on the open market. Nevertheless, most sales agencies routinely order from E & J.
Under pressure, the Veterans Administration is finally trying to open the field to innovation and lower prices but this may not happen since the Bureau of Medical Devices of the Food and Drug Administration has created a policy that classifies wheelchairs the same as tongue depressors — a category that has no standards.
After amassing a large anti-trust case against E & J, the Justice Department backed off. As a result, activist organizations of wheelchair users filed class action suits, still in litigation, which make the same claims of monopoly violations against E & J.
Meanwhile, a tragic “victim-as-culprit” attitude prevails — handicapped people are accused of not using their chairs correctly and of not considering the cost to society in making buildings accessible to them.
The lack of media coverage to America’s most captive consumers qualifies this story for nomination as one of the “best censored” stories of 1979.
The Progressive, March, 1979, “The Most Captive Consumers,” by Betty Medsger; National Catholic Reporter, Mar. 30, 1979; and Wall Street Journal, Feb. 7, 1979.