Let's Go to the Expo

The Abilities Expo, held in seven U.S. cities annually, offers a peek at new assistive technology and trends as well as product test-drives

by Barbara and Jim Twardowski, R.N. on January 9, 2014 - 9:25am

Quest Winter 2014

Every industry has its trade shows and the granddaddy for the disability community is the Abilities Expo. Introduced in 1979, the Expo’s target audience is people with disabilities, their family members, caregivers, seniors, wounded veterans and health care professionals.

An attendee at the 2013 Houston Abilities Expo test-drives a hand-powered recumbent bicycle.
The trade show floor at the Houston Abilities Expo included 120-plus exhibitors.
An Expo attendee explores an accessible Toyota van.
An attendee tries out a Redman Power Chair.
An Expo vendor promoting sled hockey sets up her booth.
Expo attendees enjoy a Zumba class.
Others particpate in a line-dancing tutorial.

Held each year in seven U.S. cities, the Expo is designed to introduce attendees to new products and technology, provide informative workshops and showcase fun and interesting events. Each Expo is free of charge and runs for three days. In 2014, Expos are scheduled for Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, San Jose and Atlanta.

The products and services featured at the Expos are designed for individuals with physical, learning, developmental or sensory disabilities.

My husband, Jim, and I attended the Abilities Expo in Houston, Texas, in 2013. We drove six hours to get to the Expo and were not disappointed. There was so much to see and do that we went on Friday and returned on Saturday.

Product test drives

Reading about products on the Internet or in a catalogue before you buy them is advisable, but that type of research can only give you so much information. That’s why the opportunity to examine — and actually test out — products in person is one of the best reasons to attend an Abilities Expo.

The Houston Abilities Expo included more than 120 exhibitors. All types of vendors were represented, from big names in the industry (like the durable medical equipment manufacturer Invacare) to mom-and-pop companies introducing new wares. Exhibitors included local companies such as Bath Fitters of Houston; regional organizations like the Southwest ADA Center, which serves five states; and national brands, like BraunAbility.

As we walked down the aisles, we found a variety of products of interest to people with neuromuscular diseases, from bathroom equipment and assistive technology to elevating wheelchairs and pediatric walking aids.

One of the most popular exhibit areas showcased wheelchair-accessible vehicles. We spoke to a Toyota rep who was demonstrating a power-rotating, lift-up auto-access seat. Basically, it is a passenger seat that swings outside the vehicle, allowing an individual to easily transfer from a wheelchair or otherwise avoid the effort of climbing into the van.

Onlookers were oohing and aahing at a wheelchair mounted with a life-size assistive robotic arm by Kinova USA. This was the first public viewing of this assistive robotic technology, known as JACO, which can be used with any power wheelchair and controller, according to the company’s CEO, Dan Niccum.

Another impressive innovation was a Permobil power wheelchair that can be controlled simply by a driver’s slight left or right head movements. A Permobil representative explained that this technology is similar to that of motion-controlled faucets found in public restrooms.

Due to my Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT), I use a Permobil power wheelchair myself, so I made sure to stop by their exhibit. The opportunity to speak to company representatives, like the one from Permobil, who really know their products further added to my positive experience at the Expo. In the first two minutes of our conversation, the Permobil rep showed me how to raise my legs by using the manual lever on my chair. He also confirmed that my particular wheelchair model cannot be outfitted with a power-elevating leg rest — something I definitely would prefer given my weak hands.

The rep asked me what I liked and disliked about my chair — so I told him. One problem I have concerns the bolt installed underneath my wheelchair that locks me in place when driving my car: It frequently gets caught on my portable ramp and sometimes hampers moving over high thresholds. The rep explained Permobil sells a “bendable bolt” that works with their lock-down system. I wonder if my local accessible van dealer knows about this product?  

Several inventors were working their own booths. At the Redman Power Chair booth, I spotted a young man grinning as he was slowly elevated to an upright position by none other than Sam Redman himself.

Because I have foot drop, I was intrigued by the KX2 devices — two springs attach to a shoe that can help lift the foot and improve one’s ability to walk. The man who created the product, Dell Klotz, was answering questions and demonstrating how easy it is to use.

I had to try a few products for myself. With Jim’s help, I transferred from my wheelchair into a Quadriciser — a motorized machine with cables that allows the user to “walk” while in a supine position. My leg braces were removed, and my feet were positioned into padded boots. Next, my hands were placed in “grip-assist” gloves and strapped to a trapeze bar.

Larry Bohanan, the owner of the company, explained that he invented the machine for his diabetic father who was in danger of losing a limb. Bohanan believes the Quadriciser restored circulation to his father’s foot and saved it from amputation. He turned the motor on, and my legs began moving as if I were bicycling. I pedaled for 30 minutes. My ankles were nearly an inch smaller after my workout. Although I was not convinced a Quadriciser is for me, I do have questions for my health care provider. Can passive exercise be beneficial? Would any continuous movement reduce the swelling in my legs and feet?

Trying the Quadriciser made me wonder what other options are available for a wheelchair user. I skimmed the Expo directory looking for more exercise equipment and found a movement trainer called MOTOmed. The machine looks like a stationary bicycle without the seat. I was able to remain in my power wheelchair and place my feet on the pedals. Immediately, I was able to pedal, exerting as much or as little effort as I could muster using the motor-assisted function. A computerized screen indicated how long I worked out and at what difficulty level.

The rep said that anyone who mentions they saw MOTOmed at the Expo would receive free shipping. She also told me about the no-obligation trial in my home. My husband was impressed with how quietly the MOTOmed runs and asked how much it weighs. At only 70 pounds and a compact 2 feet by 2 feet, it would be easy to move from one room in the house to another.

Workshops, events and more

Every day of the Expo also features special workshops and events. Most are only offered once. Workshop speakers in Houston covered a variety of topics, including selecting an accessible vehicle, the benefits of chiropractic care, financial planning and tips on dating. I attended a jam-packed talk on accessible travel and hung around after the session to meet the speaker, Debra Kerper, who owns Easy Access Travel.

Special events are scheduled throughout the Expo. These entertaining or educational offerings range from face painting and Zumba to adaptive judo demonstrations and an appearance by Auti Angel from “Push Girls,” Sundance Channel’s reality TV show about women in wheelchairs.

One of the best events was seeing an assistance dog at work. On command, the animal removed the trainer’s shoes and socks. It was an amazing demonstration that I will not soon forget.

Overall, my two days at the Abilities Expo yielded many such highlights. I learned about a variety of services and products — many that are new to the market. The workshops and events were fun, entertaining and informative. Plus, I received a miniature tiara from Miss Wheelchair Texas, admired the paintings of a local artist and learned about an adaptive sport that was new to me — sled hockey.

We are definitely marking our calendar and planning to attend again. Maybe, we will see you there.

The 2014 Abilities Expo dates and locations:

Los Angeles, Feb. 28-March 2

Atlanta, March 14-16

New York, Metro, May 2-4

Chicago, June 27-29

Houston, July 25-27

Boston, September 5-7

San Jose, Calif., Nov. 21-23

What you can see at each Abilities Expo depends upon which vendors are represented and which workshops are scheduled. Review offerings and agendas, which are posted online, before you leave home to determine what you want to see and do. Most of the workshops and events are only held once.

Here are some other tips to consider:

Be app-tastic: If you have a smartphone, consider downloading the free Abilities Expo app to find up-to-the-minute info on the go.

Plan ahead: If you are driving, preview the directions ahead of time or via a GPS device to determine which entrance to use based on your accessibility needs. And be sure to check information regarding parking costs. For example, in Houston the on-site parking fee was $10 — but cash only — for one day.

Bring a buddy: Everyone admitted to the Expo receives a wristband, and one member of each family is given a tote bag. Review the tote bag’s Abilities Expo Directory with your Expo partner to find a list of any changes that have been made, such as canceled events or the addition of new exhibitors. Then, set a game plan and go.

Make a day of it: Plan to spend several hours at the Expo. The aisles can become quite congested, and you may need to wait in line to speak to a vendor.

Have fun: Between informative workshops and product previews, the Expo is a great experience — enjoy it!

Barbara and Jim Twardowski live in Louisiana and are frequent contributors to Quest. Barbara has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease and uses a power wheelchair.

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