UTAH (ABC4) – Imagine not being able to leave the house without a device that could take up to eight to 14 hours to charge completely.
That is often the reality for people who use power wheelchairs. Power wheelchairs, rather than manual ones that are moveable with your arms, are often a necessity for people with spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, or other chronic conditions that cause fatigue and muscle weakness.
But with limited power sources, there is always the frightening risk of getting stranded if the chair runs out of charge.
Donna McCormick, Vice Chair of Disabled Rights Action Committee and a power chair user, says this is one of her biggest fears.
“Yeah, that would be very scary because there’s very limited cab service that could get you picked up and maybe take you back home,” she says. “The power chair itself weighs about 375 pounds. It can go into manual mode, but that takes somebody pushing your chair.”
In fact, just last year, Unified Police helped push a man with disabilities home after his electric wheelchair’s battery died.
A possible solution is installing public charging stations specifically for power chairs in towns and cities.
Lopeti Penima’ ani is Secretary for the Disabled Rights Action Committee. He uses a power chair and says he thinks public charging stations would be wonderful.
“I live in West Valley City, so I have to travel a ways to catch a bus to catch the train, but when I am in town I tend to do a lot of traveling on my chair. There have been times when I’ve just barely made it home,” he says. “I think that if prior to coming home to West Valley City, if I were able to stop and charge up, say if I’m waiting for the train or something, that would be very beneficial for me, or even if I were to stay in town, I would be able to stop and get a charge.”
“That would be awesome because our chairs don’t have to be fully charged to go anywhere, but if you were out and accidentally ran out of battery, it would be nice to know the closest place to go plug in,” she says.
Penima’ ani says that some power chairs have an electric cord that you plug into an AC outlet, while others use an external charger with a three-prong connector that you can plug in on the arm of the chair with the joystick.
Though most outlets can be used to charge power chairs, there are still issues that users could face. Some people in wheelchairs need someone else’s help to plug in their chair to an outlet, which is McCormick’s case.
Another issue is that outlets can be difficult to find and public outlets can already be taken. That’s where a charging station specifically for power wheelchairs would be useful.
Penima’ ani says it would be helpful to have charging stations near bus stops, around the library, and near train stops or stations since they are usually near busy places that he would like to visit, like the stadium or shopping malls.
McCormick says she would like to see charging stations across the valley, starting with bus stops, Trax, and Frontrunner stations. She says both Frontrunner and Trax have outlets, but it would be good to have outlets available while waiting for transportation too.
Both McCormick and Penima’ ani said they have never seen public charging stations for power chairs in Utah.
Furthermore, power chairs can lose charge quickly under certain circumstances, Penima’ ani says.
For example, he says that when he is going up the hill to his bus stop or coming home with bags from grocery shopping, that drags on the battery. In such cases, it would be helpful to have a charging station nearby.
But what would a public charging station look like?
ABC4.com reached out to Kent Remund at the Utah Center for Assistive Technology about the practicality of public wheelchair charging stations.
He says he thinks it’s an interesting idea that could be very simple to achieve.
“They require very low voltage, so it wouldn’t need to be something as extravagant as a car charging station,” Remund says.
Remund describes the example he saw online of a charging station that was “a mounted box on the wall that just uses basic power with a couple of cords hanging out it that are maybe five feet long that they could just plug into the armrest.”
He says this type of technology is relatively inexpensive- “about $500 and probably a minimal amount to install.”
Clearview Disability Resource Center is a service provider that markets powerchair charging stations. According to the site, the charging station, along with all cords and chargers costs $595 with shipping included.
He says he had never really thought of the idea of electric charging stations for wheelchairs before, but he could see them being useful in public places like businesses.
“It could be something interesting that maybe a restaurant or somebody might offer- a disability friendly restaurant where somebody could come in and charge while they’re eating for half an hour to an hour” he says. “They might spend half an hour, charge their wheelchair, just kind of top it off so they feel comfortable getting where they need to go.”
He says other prime locations would be bus stops or colleges and universities.
“A bus stop would be perfect because people stop for 15 minutes or so… Maybe they just get two percent more battery, but that could help them feel more comfortable getting where they wanted to be and if they had a low battery, they could just stay and wait for the next bus.”
Remund brought up range anxiety, a term usually used to describe fear that people who drive electric cars experience- they worry that their car will run out of battery before they can charge it.
He says that people who use power wheelchairs can experience that same anxiety with their chairs, and a public charger might decrease that feeling of insecurity.
“If they head out and they need to go ten miles in a day, they start questioning how far they’re going to make because – if my car runs out of battery, I can just get out and walk,” he says. “If you’re in a powerchair, that kind of increases that level of anxiety, multiplies that exponentially.”
Remund says he thinks that cities could test the effectiveness of charging stations through a pilot project “where they put ten around the city just to see how they were used.”
“We’re seeing the bicycles around town these days, we’re seeing the car chargers. We’re seeing ways that we can just improve the city and make it more livable and accessible,’ he says.
However, Remund says he isn’t sure the technology is quite there yet in terms of having the ideal public charging stations.
“For example, let’s say an individual plugs in their wheelchair for an hour. They maybe get some charge to their batteries but it’s not significant. It may be nice in an emergency situation if somebody’s out and their wheelchair batteries get low and they have to plug in for say, half an hour to get enough charge to get back home,” he says. “The only problem I see with it is it would take a fair amount of time to make any significant increase in the battery levels or adding to that.”
In fact, such technology was made right here in Utah.
In 2018, a team of electrical engineers at Utah State University made a prototype of the first electric wheelchair to charge wirelessly using a charging pad.
The power chair charges automatically while sitting on the charging pad and keeps people safe from harmful magnetic fields.
In addition, the technology is controlled by an app which gives users full access to manage the charging process without needing to ask for assistance.
Cal Coopmans, is an Assistant Research Professor at Utah State University and was one of the leaders on the project. He says this technology provides a quicker charging process than plugging the power chair into an outlet.
However, he estimated that this technology is about 5 to ten years away from becoming broadly available.
According to Coopmans, there are environmental issues that need to be taken into consideration when it comes to public charging stations. For example, if it is raining or snowing and a wheelchair gets muddy, that might change how the charging works. He said that not all chairs would be able to use the same pad, so there is the issue of standardization, as well as other safety concerns.
Like Remund, Coopmans brought up range anxiety.
“Wheelchair users have been aware of that for many years because they have that same problem… Having a power infrastructure on your trip is definitely the best way to keep people going, and it’s not nice when you have to make a call to have someone come pick you up if you’re stuck on your way home.”
Though there is still progress to be made on the technology that Coopmans and his team worked on, he says they are looking for further opportunities to continue their research.
While a simple box with outlets available in public places across a city could be useful to power chair users, there is newer but not currently available technology on the horizon.
“I would say this topic is extremely underserved, and wheelchair users especially, they are at the end of a long line of technology that needs to change in a couple of very important ways before you see any changes in wheelchairs. Wheelchair technology really hasn’t evolved much since the 80s,” he says. “One of the nicest things about working on this grant was the ability to show what even sort of modern technology could do for wheelchair users.”