Portable Solutions

Ramps and lifts help get your wheelchair where it needs to go

by Amy Madsen on July 1, 2009 - 4:48pm

QUEST Vol. 16, No. 3

Life often requires getting out and going places, many of which aren’t wheelchair friendly. But with the right portable ramp or lift, getting from Point A to Point B can turn from logistical nightmare to smooth transition.

The benefits of portable wheelchair ramps include ease and versatility of use, and sizes that accommodate hassle-free storage and transportation. Most are lightweight, and can cost far less than permanent solutions.

Federally defined ramp standards and dimensions apply only to nonmovable, permanently installed ramps, says Alejandro Miyar, from the office of public affairs at the U.S. Department of Justice. “Neither the Access Board nor the Department regulates the equipment sold as a ‘movable ramp.’”

This means it’s ultimately up to each individual to make a determination about what they want or need. First learn about your options and then analyze your situation to see what will work best for you.

Small rises

“Threshold” or “transition” ramps are meant to bridge small transitions in height, such as door entries, raised landings, roll-in showers, sunken living rooms and other minor transitions. They’re typically free-standing, though some come with hardware that allows for a more permanent installation.

Freelance writer Jan Blaustone of Nashville, Tenn., used a homemade ramp of this type that a friend fashioned for her out of a 4-foot by 4-foot piece of plywood.

Blaustone, who has limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, says she carried the ramp around in the back of her van, using it to get over curbs.

“Ideally, a lighter-weight wood would have been better,” Blaustone says, “but it was great to have — until I drove off one day and left it on the sidewalk!”

Threshold ramps, some of which can be had for less than $100, typically come in 3/4-inch to 6-inch height, or rise, and commonly are made of anodized aluminum or rubber with an antislip surface.

Greater heights

A number of ramps are designed to be used for accessing homes, offices and other buildings; they also may be used to gain access to vans or some trucks and SUVs.

Some feature a single-piece design, while others fold up or come apart into one or more pieces, or roll up for easier use and storage.

These ramps may be as long as 7 feet. (You may find the same design in longer lengths, but that generally makes them less portable.) They range in price from $150 to upwards of $800.

Mike Neufeldt, who has Emery-Dreifuss muscular dystrophy (EDMD), is a communications specialist for Harley-Davidson Motor Company in Milwaukee. He uses a folding ramp that’s compatible with his newer mid-wheel-drive power wheelchair.

Neufeldt’s ramp is 7 feet long and weighs about 75 pounds, but it folds in half and breaks down into two 35-pound pieces for easier carrying. It has a weight-bearing capacity of up to 600 pounds.

Also piloting a mid-wheel-drive power wheelchair and requiring a portable ramp is Tom Bush of Oro Valley, Ariz., who has spinal muscular atrophy.

A ramp is a requirement with mid-wheel-drive chairs, says Bush, because they cannot be tilted back to go over “even one step or a curb.”  Once the middle-drive wheels leave the ground, the chair no longer can move.

Bush’s ramp is a one-piece model made of lightweight aluminum, weighing about 20 pounds and measuring 3 feet wide by 2 feet long. He uses it primarily to enter and exit friends’ homes and some buildings, and also for interior barriers such as one-step sunken living rooms and for entering or exiting backyards and patios.

He notes that for single steps in the higher-height range, he sometimes backs his wheelchair down the ramp with guidance from a companion. Also, depending on the surface, he says, “the ramp can slip off the step, so I usually ask someone to place their foot at the end of the ramp until the wheelchair’s front wheels are on the ramp.”

For up to three-step barriers, Bush uses his portable ramp “in conjunction with a six-foot ramp I store in my garage.”

Wheelchair repairers also make use of his portable ramp, Bush notes, raising up the front or rear of the chair to view the underside.

Bush stores the ramp in the storage space at the rear of his van and says his wife, Tina, “handles it without a problem.” In most cases, he notes “the wheelchair user will need the assistance of another person to safely transport and position their ramp.” For ease of portability, he recommends obtaining the lightest-weight ramp that will do the job.

Tom Bush’s one-piece ramp from Prairie View Industries helps him effectively navigate one-step barriers and stows easily in the back of his van.

A 4-foot-long suitcase ramp that folds up lengthwise and sports a handle for carrying is the portable ramp of choice for Sam Kahn, who has EDMD and is creative director for Namazu Studios in San Diego.

“It’s bulky and heavy and inconvenient,” says Kahn, who uses it mostly to visit friends and family, “but unfortunately it’s the only solution most of the time.”

Kahn says he only uses the ramp “on two steps at most,” due to the increased chance with steeper inclines of “the chair slipping and losing control.”

When traveling, Kahn says, the ramp fits neatly in the van’s storage space or in the back seat (strapped down).

Track wheelchair ramps (sometimes called channel ramps) are designed to line up with the wheels on each side of a wheelchair and often are used for loading wheelchairs and four-wheeled scooters into vans. Some are designed with a telescoping feature that allows their length to be adjusted.

These ramps usually are made of aluminum in order to be both strong and lightweight, and generally can be purchased (by the pair) for less than $700.

Before he switched to a folding ramp, Neufeldt used a pair of telescoping ramps that were adjustable to approximately 5 feet in length and weighed about 10 pounds each.

The ramps were great for travel and getting into homes or buildings with one or two steps, Neufeldt says, explaining that, “the most important thing was to get them lined up properly.” If the tracks weren’t properly spaced, he adds, “the chair wouldn’t be able to make it up.”

Neufeldt also notes that the ramps had some “slippage” at times, making it important that someone hold on to the back of his wheelchair to give him extra support.

Channel ramps usually are not recommended for mid-wheel-drive chairs because, on most such chairs, the middle wheels are slightly offset from the front and rear wheels.  If you have a mid-wheel drive, ensure each channel is wide enough for your wheel alignment.

How heavy, how high?

Before he switched to a folding ramp, Neufeldt used a pair of telescoping ramps that were adjustable to approximately 5 feet in length and weighed about 10 pounds each.

woman with suitcase ramp
Suitcase ramps, such as this one from Prairie View Industries, feature handles for easier transport.

“It’s hard to purchase one ramp for every occasion,” Blaustone says. “I’d ask myself, what is the main circumstance I need it for? Is it curbs or steps? For air travel or car travel? To use alone, or will I have someone to lift and/or assemble it?”

Check your wheelchair’s instruction manual or the manufacturer’s Web site for the weight of your chair, then add in your weight. Bariatric ramps with greater weight-bearing capacities are offered in many portable models.

If possible, measure the vertical height of the places you’ll use the ramp the most. Then check your chair’s specifications for its maximum allowable incline. This is the degree of slope your wheelchair can safely ascend and descend, a figure that determines the length of ramp you’ll need. (The slope angle often can be steeper for an unoccupied chair.)

Choose a ramp that doesn’t form an angle greater than your chair’s maximum allowable incline. Failure to do so may result in injury to you and damage to your wheelchair.

Next, narrow down other critical factors like ease of portability and setup, and storage space in your vehicle. Compare prices, which can vary widely.

Then buy the ramp, and get up and go with a little added confidence that you can handle the “bumps” life may put in your way.

For more resources, see InfoQuest.

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