The Power of Portability

Transportable power wheelchairs & scooters

by Kathy Wechsler on September 1, 2007 - 10:51am

QUEST Vol. 14, No. 5

In the past three years, the popularity of portable power wheelchairs and scooters has skyrocketed as the travel bug bites more people with disabilities. Perfect for travel by car, airplane or boat, portable mobility devices are the wave of the future, says Mark Farmer, owner of Southwest Mobility in Phoenix since 1989.

Good things come in small packages

Manufacturers of portable power chairs and scooters, such as Pride Mobility, Sunrise Medical, Invacare, Merits Health Products, Leisure-Lift and Ranger All Season, are working to make these devices as lightweight, compact and easy to take apart as possible.

Even though these units are portable, they have all the same pieces as standard power wheelchairs and scooters, but weigh less because the pieces are smaller. Most portable power chairs and scooters weigh between 90 and 120 pounds, while standard power chairs usually weigh around 200 pounds, and most standard scooters weigh around 150 pounds.

Because they’re so lightweight and have small batteries, the weight of the rider needs to be taken into account. Most portables have a weight capacity of about 250 pounds and aren’t appropriate for a larger person.

In general, portable units fold or disassemble without tools into three to five pieces, with the heaviest piece usually weighing about 20 to 35 pounds. Because the battery pack drops in place, there aren’t any connectors to disconnect. They fit into the trunks of most average-sized cars.

Other issues

Before buying a portable power chair or scooter, Farmer suggests learning how hard it is to take apart and put back together. It’s also a good idea to know the weight of the heaviest section. If it turns out to be too difficult or heavy to keep disassembling and reassembling, it might end up just sitting in the closet.

folding power chair
Frank Mobility Systems' E.Fix is a power add-on system that transforms your manual wheelchair into a power chair, giving the user the best of both worlds.

Batteries on portable power chairs and scooters don’t last as long as on standard devices because they’re smaller and not quite as powerful. Portables’ battery packs last about a year, whereas batteries on standard devices will last a couple of years. Portables also have a shorter driving range before they need to be recharged. Portable power chairs and scooters can travel up to 4 miles an hour.

Portables have smaller wheels, which makes the ride rougher. They’re better for  use inside because rough terrain can be taxing on the batteries.

But they’re durable. As you’ve read in his “To Boldly Go” travel column in Quest, Andy Vladimir, who has myotonic muscular dystrophy, uses his 10-year-old portable Amigo scooter to travel the world.

Vladimir, of Coconut Grove, Fla., doesn’t take his scooter apart on a daily basis because he can drive it into his wheelchair-accessible van, but he does use the disassembly feature while traveling.

“When I have to take it apart, like in taxis, I just take the seat off and pull the handle down,” he says. “It’s very easy to take apart, and it goes very easily into the trunk of any vehicle.”

Because his Amigo scooter also is narrow, he can fit through spaces that aren’t reachable by wider scooters.

What’s out there?

Farmer says durable medical equipment (DME) dealers offer services that may not be available when buying through the Internet. With a DME dealer, you can get all of your questions answered and have someone who’ll stand behind the product in case it needs repairs.

folding power chair
folding power chair
The Zip'r3 Leisure Travel Scooter from Zip'r Mobility Solutions can be disassembled and stored in the trunk of a car.

Prices for portable power chairs range from $2,000 to $6,000, and most portable scooters cost from $1,200 to $1,800. If you only need it occasionally, you can save by renting a portable mobility device for around $250 a month. They can be rented from most DME dealers or companies that rent medical products.

It’s always good to shop around and compare features and prices. Here are a few different models of portable power wheelchairs and scooters.

Invacare’s At’m Take Along Chair ($3,295) is a lightweight and compact power chair that’s designed to quickly disassemble into three pieces for easy transport in the trunk of almost any vehicle. The heaviest piece, which is the base, weighs 34 pounds; the wheels add 5 pounds. The breathable seat folds like a lawn chair and weighs just 14 pounds.

Turn your manual wheelchair into a power chair with the E.Fix lightweight power add-on system from Frank Mobility Systems. With the E.Fix ($5,995), your wheelchair remains foldable and portable after removing the battery pack. The power add-on system, which weighs 58 pounds, includes quick-release rear tires that allow you to easily switch from power to manual operation. It comes with a fully programmable joystick controller. You also can get the E.Fix Plus ($7,450), which is compatible with an ASL switch system alternative control device.

The Featherlite XL scooter ($1,895) from No Boundaries folds for easy storage in closets or trunks of small cars. It also quickly disassembles into smaller, lighter parts for easy transport. Airline travel is simple — just drive it to the gate, fold it and gate-check it just like a manual wheelchair or stroller.

A unique portable scooter, the AutoGo ($3,795) from The Rascal Company, transforms from a scooter to a motor-powered walker by folding. It’s also designed to disassemble into three to four pieces that easily click back into place. The AutoGo is powerful enough to accommodate up to 300 pounds.

Primary or secondary?

The author glides down Crawford's Blaze run
Justin Barczak and family enjoy sightseeing with Justin's portable power chair, which can be transported in the trunk of a rental car.

First, consider how long you’ll be sitting in the portable wheelchair or scooter, says Farmer. This question is extremely important if you have a neuromuscular disease and use a power chair full time. The answer depends on your diagnosis and level of progression.

Unlike standard power chairs, portable power chairs usually can’t be modified with complex seating, headrests, tilt/recline and alternative control devices. If you need a more elaborate chair, you may want to get a portable as a secondary chair for travel purposes.

In June, Kathy Nunes of Waterford, Conn., bought her 12-year-old son, Justin Barczak, an Invacare At’m Take Along Chair as a secondary power wheelchair because the family does a lot of traveling. On family vacations, she wanted Justin, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, to have the independence of a power chair, but she needed a chair that would fit in the trunk of a rental car.

Nunes says that Justin doesn’t use the portable power chair full-time because it doesn’t offer him enough support.

“It’s not as good as your power chair that’s fully equipped, but I definitely would recommend it for short trips and just for travel,” she says. “That’s what it’s made for.”

By contrast, “scooter users are typically going to be a little more ambulatory than power chair users,” Farmer says. “A lot of scooter users will get [a portable scooter] as their only or primary scooter.”

Most insurance companies and Medicare/Medicaid cover portable power chairs and scooters with a physician’s letter of medical necessity.

But getting insurance or Medicare/Medicaid coverage may be difficult if the portable isn’t your main set of wheels, as funding sources usually cover only one mobility device every five years.


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