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
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 (www.pc.gov.bc.ca/mso/wheelchair1/wheelchairs.htm).
This information includes an emergency contact number, as required, for
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
claims equipment service requirements being met
company switches direction on emergency service