By Angelo Henderson
The Wheelchair Turns
Hip as New Generation
Of User Demands Style
Many Are Youthful Victims
Of Urban Violence Who
Want More Than a Ride
Trading Up to a `Rolls-Royce'
By Angelo B . Henderson
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 1995, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
DETROIT -- In his heyday, Willie Brown was into basketball; his moves to the basket and leaping dunks made him a high-school star.
These days, 25-year-old Mr. Brown has a different perspective on the game. Nine years ago, gang members opened fire on a drug dealer near Mr. Brown's home here. Caught in the crossfire, he was ripped by four slugs from a .357-caliber Magnum and paralyzed from the waist down.
Mr. Brown can no longer dunk the ball but he still plays hoops, moving to the basket in a glistening, black, $2,500 lightweight wheelchair known as the Quickie GPV. It is his fourth chair in the past few years. He hopes to trade up again soon to a high-tech, $4,000 "standing chair" that allows users to go from a sitting to a standing position.
"That's my dream chair -- the Lexus of wheelchairs ," Mr. Brown says.
An epidemic of urban violence has created a whole new class of wheelchair user, which in turn is driving the fastest-growing niche in the nation's $475 million-a-year wheelchair industry. Many of the buyers are young African-American men not content with the heavy, chrome prototypical wheelchair of old. Once they accept their fate, many want from their wheelchairs what young men everywhere want from cars, running shoes and bicycles: style, performance and pizazz.
"Look at the car industry," says Neal Curran, general manager of the Action lightweight division of Ohio-based Invacare Corp., one of the nation's largest and oldest wheelchair makers. "The new Mustang comes in a hot red, a purple, forest green or a blue sapphire metallic. What's hot in the bike and car industry . . . follows suit in this industry."
Art Humphrey III, head of a Detroit-area rehabilitation center whose clients include numerous victims of urban violence, agrees: "It's just like picking shoes or clothes -- the chair says something about the user."
To meet this burgeoning market, about a dozen major U.S. companies and a handful of European makers have begun to radically change wheelchair design, coming up with sporty, collapsible models that are highly maneuverable and as much as 30 pounds lighter than their old chrome counterparts. Colors range from "shocking blue" and "electric red" to "midnight purple" and "antique bronze."
And the list of options reads like the window sticker on a sports car: high performance, oversized tires; cambered, pop-off wheels designed for speed; Rollerblade-like casters that allow for reflex-quick maneuverability; and sleek, flashy spoke guards that are the equivalent of fancy hubcaps. Buyers can also get accessory packages that include matching seat pouches, backpacks and sweat shirts.
On top of that, some users customize their chairs like they customize their cars: with stickers, reflectors and even vanity license plates. They also share another trait with car buyers: They constantly want to trade up. "When an 80-year-old gets a wheelchair, that'll probably be the only one," says Vivian Wohl, a medical-products analyst at Robertson, Stephens & Co. in San Francisco. "But when a 20-year-old gets a wheelchair, that person will upgrade just like a car, just like he wants the latest pair of Nike sneakers."
Though wheelchair makers only reluctantly acknowledge this new market, statistics show that it is grim and growing. Violence -- specifically gunshot wounds -- is the No. 1 cause of crippling spinal-cord injuries among black men, outranking car accidents, bone-crushing falls, sports injuries and diving accidents, says Michael DeVivo, manager of analytic services for the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. At the Southeastern Michigan Spinal Cord Injury System, Michigan's largest spinal-injury rehabilitation center, some 90% of the gunshot victims treated there are male -- 86% of them African-Americans.
"Violence is the polio of the 1990s," says Mr. Humphrey, 43, who runs the Great Lakes, Oakland and Macomb Center for Independent Living in Detroit. Mr. Humphrey himself is bound to a wheelchair after being accidentally shot by his brother more than 20 years ago. "I can field a new five-man basketball team every day based upon individuals who have recently sustained spinal-cord injuries as a direct result of violence," he says.
Even more unsettling, the customer base for high-performance chairs appears to be getting ever younger. "The median age of a target customer was between 18 and 30, but violence has brought that down to about 13," says Judy Batista, a marketing vice president for Quickie Designs Inc. of Fresno, Calif. The wheelchair division of Sunrise Medical Inc., Quickie shares the top of the high-performance wheelchair market with rival Invacare.
Typical of the new user is Anthony "Shawn" Leggett, 24, of Detroit. He bowls, plays basketball, goes to parties, concerts, movies and malls -- most of the time in a $2,400 Quickie "Black Diamond," a lightweight aluminum model complete with black spoke guards and clothing protectors. "My wheelchair is a part of me," Mr. Leggett says. "I can't have nice clothes on with a dirty chair -- that's not me. I clean it like it's a part of my body."
It wasn't always that way. One rainy evening in September 1993, Mr. Leggett drove to a neighborhood grocery store in his 10-year-old Buick to slake his thirst for lemonade. After making his 71-cent purchase, he left the store -- and felt the sickening prod of a gun barrel in his face. "Don't move, just give me your keys," his assailant told him.
Mr. Leggett was incredulous. "You are going to shoot me for this car? That's what this is about?" he asked.
As Mr. Leggett turned to run, the reply was the thunder of the gun -- and a burning pain in his back.
Left for dead on the street corner, his spine shattered, Mr. Leggett was eventually rushed to a hospital, where he was told he would never walk again.
Now, high-tech wheelchair technology allows him to live a reasonably normal life. His Quickie is about five months old; his first chair was more basic. He has recently acquired another chair -- a $5,500, powder-blue, stand-up model. A government-funded rehabilitation program bought the chair for Mr. Leggett at the urging of the Detroit Medical Center, where he recently got a job as an ambulatory-services representative. In a matter of seconds, the chair allows Mr. Leggett to go from a sitting to standing position -- helpful when he has to reach the upper drawers of his office filing cabinet. Though he still uses his Quickie at home, "this standing chair is like the ultimate. It's an Excalibur or a Rolls-Royce," he says.
Until he got his job, Mr. Leggett, like many paralyzed gunshot victims, relied upon Medicaid health insurance to finance his chairs. Medicaid allowances are generous but don't always cover the full price of the most expensive high-performance chairs. And the government program only allows users to upgrade every five years.
But because Medicaid is such a big player in the market, it has prodded high-performance wheelchair makers to lower prices while adding options. "You used to be able to get antilock brakes when you bought a Mercedes, and now you can get them on a [Chrysler] Neon," says Mr. Curran of Invacare's Action division. "Likewise, features and benefits that used to be only in upper-end wheelchairs have been put into the lower end."
For example, Action last November made a low-end version of its upper-end $1,995 "Terminator." Known as the "A4," it sells for $1,800. The price of Action's "Pro T" wheelchair dropped from $1,850 to $1,250 late last year. Both maintain many features of the higher-priced models; other wheelchair makers are following suit.
One component of the high-performance wheelchair market is sports; with disabled athletes now competing in everything from basketball to track to tennis, companies also have begun to turn out chairs that are sports specific. Consider Invacare Action's "T3" tennis chair -- a three-wheeler that sells for about $2,500.
To market these chairs, manufacturers sponsor wheelchair teams and sporting events; Invacare Action, for example, sponsors the Dallas Wheelchair Mavericks, the Chicago Wheelchair Bulls and the Utah Wheelchair Jazz. It and other companies also underwrite sporting events, including the Paralympic Games, considered the second-largest sporting event in the world after the Olympics. Manufacturers also show off their chairs in commercials and on television shows. Tarah Schaeffer, the nine-year-old wheelchair user on "Sesame Street," rides a hot-pink Quickie. The chairs also were featured in an episode of "Northern Exposure" that included a wheelchair race.
But to reach their bigger market -- urban youths -- wheelchair companies target rehabilitation centers, the second stop for spinal-cord-injury patients following, in many cases, a stay in a hospital critical-care unit. These centers are pivotal marketing and distribution outlets because performance wheelchairs aren't sold through major retailers; they typically are fitted by doctors and made to order.
Wheelchair makers try to persuade physical and occupational therapists to use their chairs, holding individual sales pitches at hospitals -- known as sitting clinics. Patients see demonstrations, and wheelchair makers leave plenty of chairs around to test drive. "The first chair somebody will prescribe for you. But you'll get more knowledgeable, and the second chair becomes a consumer chair," says Ms. Batista of Quickie. By that time, the buyer will "know what's cool."
Quickie, acquired by Sunrise Medical in 1986, was co-founded by an investor injured in a hang-gliding accident; she wanted a wheelchair made of the same ultralight aluminum tubing that framed her glider. These days, Quickie actually markets itself as the company with the "hippest" wheelchairs , using sex appeal to cater to a youthful, macho image. It prints T-shirts and buttons with such slogans as "You'll never forget your 1st Quickie" and "Nothing beats a Quickie."
Meanwhile, Invacare's Action division was launched five years ago, and its chairs are considered the company's premier product line. "We make the Corvettes of the world vs. the standard Chevy," says Rick Cooper, Invacare's consumer-relation manager.
Some of these Corvettes are on display on the basketball court on Tuesday mornings and Thursday evenings at Detroit's Gen. George S. Patton Memorial Recreation Center. Most of the players in these wheelchair basketball leagues are victims of urban violence.
They play an aggressive game, wheeling madly about the court strapped into their chairs at the thighs and calves to keep from falling out. But crashes are common -- sounding like a massive collision of bicycles -- and chairs often go tumbling over, players with them.
But the action turns the court into a virtual rainbow of wheelchairs , and players spend as much time talking about chairs -- colors and performance -- as they do about the game. The hip look at the moment: frames decorated with a kind of spider-web effect achieved by spray painting a variety of colors over a basic finish.
James Gouch, 26, likes his look better, however. Injured in a traffic accident several years ago, he now wheels around in giddy circles in Invacare's new "Top End" model -- a $2,300 chair whose frame is a mind-altering bluish-purple. Best of all, the chair has in-line skate casters that allow him to make basketball moves reminiscent of the spinning dance steps of Motown's Four Tops, a 1960s rhythm-and-blues group. "I'm quicker and I turn better," Mr. Gouch says.