No service in sight

After-hours service for mobility equipment difficult to find

By Paul Gowan

No matter how finely tuned, mobility equipment, like all things mechanical, breaks down periodically. If you believe in the laws of Murphy, the most likely time and place for this to happen is late on a cold, wet Friday night on a street far from home.

When it happens, what are your options? Sit tight for the night? Hope that someone comes by to pick you up? Call the police? Phone your relatives who live 500 miles away? Pray for deliverance?

You may have to try one or all of these, since emergency service for your equipment is unlikely to materialize.

The provincial government mandates that 24-hour emergency telephone service be provided to BC Ministry of Human Resources (MHR) clients who have a problem with their mobility equipment. Companies contracted to the government to provide this service must include an emergency contact number.

The BC Ministry of Management Services administers the contracts for MHR, including information on each company on its website ( This information includes an emergency contact number, as required, for each company.

The government contract requirements state: "Contractor must provide Ministry clients with toll-free, 24-hour emergency telephone service."

However, almost none of the companies initially contacted said they provided any emergency telephone service at all, but only a voice message for the store. Clients wait until the next business day to get a call back. If their emergency occurs Friday night, they wait until Monday for a response.

This is if they even know that an after-hours number exists.

Store hours for companies that sell and service mobility equipment such as electric wheelchairs are normally open Monday to Friday - in some cases Saturday. When they are not, there is a yawning service gap.

Paul Gauthier has cerebral palsy and utilizes an electric wheelchair. He is also a busy disability advocate who works for the BC Coalition of People With Disabilities and the BC Paraplegic Association, as well as for World Accessibility, an online disability forum.

Gauthier, who lives in Vancouver, said store hours and lack of emergency service pose a significant problem for people with disabilities when they get a flat tire, or their wheelchair breaks down. "Most people's wheelchairs break down on a long weekend … it's kind of funny," he notes.

He said people with disabilities need access to emergency services. "It's shocking to hear that the ministry says that they have to have a 24-hour line available and then none of them [the companies] are providing the service," said Gauthier. "To me, it's very surprising."

"The fact that it's part of an agreement that they get government dollars from is also very concerning."

Until recently, emergency service was available from a small company called Wheelchairs on the Go, which in addition to product sales, specialized in being available for people on weekends and evenings. The operator, who had a disability himself, was located in Vancouver and operated for nearly four years.

However, he wasn't big enough to be part of the ministry contract, so even though he was providing emergency service, he had trouble getting any work through the government, Gauthier said.

Within the last year or so, he went out of business.

According to B.C.'s Ministry of Human Resources, a requirement to provide emergency telephone service is being fulfilled by companies that receive government contracts to sell and service mobility equipment for persons with disabilities.

When contacted, Mike Long, Communications Manager for MHR, said the ministry contract requires that companies must provide an emergency number, but not same-day emergency service.

If a client calls in on a Friday evening to a company's emergency phone number, and the company gets back to them on Monday, Long said the company is fulfilling the contract.

"Just as long as they've got that number that clients can access, they're fulfilling the requirements of the contract," he said.

"There's not the expectation that the contractor staff the emergency service line. They have to have a line but don't have to have someone there answering the phone."

Roger Jones, a disability consultant who has worked with the government previously on development of disability strategy as well as in negotiating contracts for companies providing equipment, knows is "very serious."

Jones, a quadriplegic, has done a variety of work with organizations such as the B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities, Rick Hansen Wheels in Motion, Douglas College, World Accessibility and others.

"The retailers don't want to do it because of cost," he said of the service. "But the reason it was put in the contract was because it was a priority. That's why it was put in. So they all [the companies] signed off on that, wanting this ministry business, but they definitely don't want to spend the money to provide the service."

He added, "The ministry has not done due diligence, so these guys get away without providing the service, but they're getting good money - millions of dollars in contracts - for supposedly providing something that they don't provide."

"It's pretty straightforward, because it's in the contract. It's right there in black and white."

Gauthier said MHR is letting the provider off the hook. "They've figured out a way not to provide it," he said, referring to the companies.

Motion Specialties, in Vancouver, is a provider of wheelchair equipment and services contracted with the government. When called, owner John Armstrong said they provided no emergency service, even though they did list a 24-hour phone number for people to call. The number yielded a message that an employee would respond to the next business day.

Armstrong said he felt he knew what the market and his clients were demanding. He claimed providing 24-hour service would be uneconomical, and said clients, though they say they would like emergency service, wouldn't actually use it because it's too expensive, at least for those not covered by MHR.

Two weeks after being called, Motion Specialties' Armstrong phoned back to say that after considering the matter, Motion Specialties had decided to offer emergency service using a pager system. He said they would monitor the service on a month-to-month basis.

Gauthier refuted the claim that clients, especially ministry clients, would not use the service. "If it's a small few, then it's a small few, but these are our legs, and without having someone be able to fix that right away most people with disabilities will end up staying in bed for the entire weekend - if they do break down on Friday."

Regarding cost, Gauthier noted that the mandatory service is aimed at ministry clients. For these clients, if their wheelchair breaks down, it's the ministry that pays for that service. "It's not coming out of the individual's pocket." He said, "That's not correct to say that people with disabilities don't require the service."

Companies claim clients often have a second chair. However, for quadriplegics, this is a non-option because of their limited mobility.

Companies also say government won't pay for emergency service if it is deemed unnecessary. "Well, first of all, if it's emergency service, it is considered necessary," Gauthier responded.

"As a person with a disability myself, and working with many people with disabilities, helping them during their transition into community, one of the biggest concerns that people with disabilities have is, on a Friday night, their wheelchair breaks down," said Gauthier.

"I get many calls over the evenings and weekends, [saying], Paul, 'Do you know anybody I can contact with regard to repairing my wheelchair?' It could be just a flat tire, it could be a motor that's gone, it could be anything. And I get a number of calls throughout the year from individuals saying we need somebody, who can we call."

He said another reason clients wouldn't use emergency service is if they don't know it exists. "If clients don't know that it's available, they're not going to use it," said Gauthier. "It's not known to be available, and clients have not in the past been able to access weekend service, so that's why they haven't been using it. If they knew that there was evening and weekend service available for emergencies, they would use it."

One other company, Access Mobility, formerly known as Ranger Wheelchairs, has been providing after-hours service for clients who buy its wheelchairs.

Their telephone number is linked via pager to their electronic technician. So, even though they don't provide a live response 24/7, within a few minutes, a technician is supposed to respond.

Access Mobility sells its own custom-built wheelchairs under the name Ranger Wheelchairs. Ranger also provides 'loaner' chairs when service is being done, although usually they can perform the service fast enough so that the client doesn't need one.

Al Portice, service manager at Access Mobility, usually performs service from 4:30 to 10 p.m. "If somebody phones and says, 'Al, I've got a flat tire,' I'm usually there that evening. It's only really an emergency if somebody phones and says 'I need you now,'" he said.

If someone does need him 'now,' he tries to make it, but still asks them if they can wait until later in the evening. He doesn't advertise it as 24-hour service, but with the pager, if someone phones "at 10 o'clock at night" and leaves a message, he said there's a "darn good chance" he will phone them back.

The company said providing service in the evening is actually easier for them because traffic is lighter.

Shirley Walden of the Ministry of Management Services (MMS), which administers the service contracts for MHR, said she was unaware of the emergency service issue.

She said she wasn't familiar with the details of the contracts. Walden said enforcing contracts would involve joint discussion between two ministries - MMS and MHR.

When asked whether all equipment contractors should be following mandatory service criteria, she said, "One would think, yes."

One electric wheelchair user at the Disability Foundation suffered a problem when he discovered a flat tire on his electric wheelchair while in his apartment on a Friday night in December. His father was coming by to pick him up for the weekend. In the meantime, he began to feel his wheelchair tilt precariously, so he unlocked his front door, positioned his chair next to the wall, and waited. Had emergency service been available and his father not been coming by, he definitely would have used it, he said.

Companies performing repairs to equipment belonging to MHR clients need prior permission before performing service and charging it to the ministry. So, even when a company offers emergency service on a Friday night, they can't get approval to perform it until the following week, and MHR doesn't always approve the request.

In addition, front-line MHR workers can only approve less expensive repairs. More expensive requests go to Victoria.

"If something happened to your equipment on a Saturday afternoon, there was no way to get approval from the ministry, the retailers, even though they were supposed to offer this weekend or night service; (they) would not do it," said Jones.

"They'd wait until Monday; it might take them two days to get a hold of the case worker, and they're not going to do anything because they got burned too many times by the government."

In a singular feat of accomplishment, Jones managed to convince the government about four years ago to increase the amount its front line workers could approve. Then, at least if a case worker could be reached, they could authorize some repair work immediately rather than having to run everything by Victoria.

Jones said at the time, MHR told him they had never been told of problems. He said this was "a lot of bunk," since he knew for a fact that people for many years had been complaining to MHR and their workers about equipment service issues. But the official ministry line was that nobody had ever asked.

Mark Stuzka in sales at Access Mobility explains how they cope with the issue. "Normally, there's up to a certain plateau of resources that we're willing to take as a chance," he said. "If it's a flat tire, we're not going to wait for authorization -we'll do it before. If it's a set of batteries, normally we have to wait for authorization, because the value of that gets to $200 to $300. Usually anything below $200 or $300 we're willing to do."

Jones said in the past people were afraid to come forward with problems and challenge the hand that fed them. "So the ministry was saying there was no problem … but people weren't saying anything to them because there was no process under which they could say something without fearing the repercussions."

An appeal process was supposed to exist but in fact it didn't, so there was no recourse, said Jones. In addition, approval was at the discretion of people who knew nothing about the equipment. "So I would say to a case worker, I need a tire, they would say well, you don't really need tires, why don't you just patch it. They had absolutely no idea."

"I'm a wheelchair user. I know that I need my equipment fixed. A social worker would not be expected to know about a power wheelchair."

Motion Specialties' Armstrong said he believed B.C. Automobile Association (BCAA) performed emergency service for people with wheelchairs, but no one spoken to at BCAA knew anything about such a service. A spokesperson there said that BCAA will come out to recharge a dead battery for a stuck BCAA member, but that it did not perform disability emergency service.

The BC Paraplegic Association runs a program called the Provincial Respiratory Outreach Program, which provides emergency assistance to persons who have a problem with a ventilator. But acting executive director Bert Foreman said the program deals specifically with ventilators and no other equipment.

Lack of emergency service can also prove a disincentive for people with disabilities trying to work. "If we're expecting people with disabilities to get into the workforce, if their chair breaks down on the weekend, that means on Monday when they have to go to work at 9 a.m., they're not going to work, and this is a government that is pushing toward people with disabilities working, where possible," said Gauthier.

"We should be encouraging people with disabilities to be able to work, and that the supports that you require are things you should be able to have, that's really important, I think," Gauthier said. "If they don't show up to work because their wheelchair's broken down, it just puts another point against people with disabilities getting the opportunity to get into the workforce."

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