Wheelchair disasters offer simple safety lessons

by Kathy Wechsler on January 1, 2008 - 2:49pm

QUEST Vol. 15, No. 1

All wheelchair drivers have run over some toes, bashed into walls and unintentionally moved large pieces of furniture. But the drivers profiled in this article have gone beyond mishaps and experienced true wheelchair disasters, or near-disasters.

Their pain can be your gain, if their hard-won yet simple wisdom helps prevent these calamities from happening to you.

Hitchin’ a ride

Ben Carpenter
With the handles of his power wheelchair lodged in the semi truck’s grille, Ben Carpenter went barreling down Red Arrow Highway on a 55-mile-per-hour ride.

Benjamin Carpenter of Kalamazoo, Mich., hitched a ride on the front of a Ralph Moyle Incorporated semitrailer truck in June 2007. Carpenter, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy and uses a power wheelchair, was returning from a ride on a nature trail in Paw Paw with his attendant, Jennifer Horak, who was riding her bicycle.

Carpenter, 22, was rolling his wheelchair on the sidewalk parallel to Red Arrow Highway and passed the semi, which was stopped at a red light at an intersection. Needing to cross the highway to get to his parked van, Carpenter turned left in front of the semi while the light was still red. While he was in front of the semi, the light turned green.

“The trucker never saw Ben and just took off,” said Carpenter’s father, Donald. “Ben was a little late getting into the intersection, and the trucker could have looked around a little better, but they’re sitting up way high and really couldn’t see [Carpenter’s chair].”

The semi bumped into the side of Carpenter’s chair and turned it forward, lodging the chair’s handles into the grille of the semi and pushing the wheelchair, with Carpenter in it, down the highway at 55 miles per hour.

“I was just pretty scared,” Carpenter said. “I was like calling for help, but I knew no one could hear me.”

Horak, on her bicycle, had fallen slightly behind Carpenter and didn’t see what had happened. After a driver at the intersection started honking his horn and called out what was happening, Horak called 911 on her cell phone in a panic.

Fortunately for Carpenter, the wild ride came to an end after two miles as the semi turned into the trucking company’s driveway.

“I thought I could’ve died if he hadn’t stopped when he did,” he said.

Carpenter escaped without a scratch and only damaged the tires of his wheelchair. Because most of the rubber had been burnt off, the wheels probably wouldn’t have held up much longer had the semi kept going.

Lessons learned

“I guess mainly just make sure you watch the crosswalk signs,” said Carpenter.

Donald also pointed out the truth of the saying, “better safe than sorry.”

“We have an orange flag that we stick up, and normally we would have it on him when he’s around our house area, but Ben was out that day with his attendant who was taking him around,” he said. “We didn’t normally ask them to put the flag up because they didn’t normally cross streets, so this was just a very unusual incident.

“But now when they’re out with him, we ask them to put the flag up wherever they’re at.”

Free fallin’

One summer evening in 1988, Tedde Scharf, who has limb-girdle muscular dystrophy (LGMD), was riding a Phoenix city bus home from Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe, where she worked as director of Disability Resources. Because it was an older bus, the rear entry steps unfolded to a lift to allow for wheelchair access.

After her power wheelchair was untied at the bus stop, Scharf, 65, boarded the lift. Because the bus was tilted toward the curbside, the lift had a slight downward slope.

“I rolled onto the lift with one foot slightly extended beyond my foot pedal to feel for the lift barricade,” said Scharf, a former member of MDA’s Board of Directors. “As I rolled forward I never felt the barricade with my toe, and the next thing I knew the cement was rushing toward me as I fell head down from the lift.”

“Oh please, not my head,” went through her mind.

Tedde Scharf boarding bus
Tedde Scharf boards the new and improved Phoenix Metro years after her accident.

The bus driver, who operated the lift from inside the bus, was frantic and jumped from the bus. Drivers called 911 and rushed to her aid.

Scharf’s 400-pound wheelchair tumbled on top of her, breaking her tibia and fibulae (leg bones) and crushing both ankles and feet. The fall badly bruised her chest and injured both wrists and vertebrae in her neck. After a two-month hospital stay, she spent two months recuperating at home with round-the-clock aides and visiting nurses.

A specially designed tray attached to her wheelchair was the only thing that prevented her head from smashing into the concrete.

Because of her LGMD, recovery was difficult, if not impossible.

“The weight of the casts and splints (initially on all four limbs) and lying on my back for two months caused the loss of any remaining muscle capacity I had left,” said Scharf. “I haven’t regained any muscle strength, but I did learn new ways to compensate.”

Even though she was on a ventilator before the accident, her breathing capacity declined afterward. She also still experiences daily swelling, coldness and numbness in her feet.

Scharf filed suit against the parties involved and was awarded enough to cover medical expenses, hospital bills, rehab care, nursing care and wheelchair damage. Medical bills also were covered by her ASU health insurance.

“My chair was pretty badly damaged. The leg rests and foot pedals were broken into pieces, the back of the chair was broken, the recliner mechanism damaged, the arm rests needed repair/replacement and the front wheel drive was damaged,” she said. “It took nearly two months to rebuild the chair.”

Her mouth tube flew into pieces, but the ventilator on the back of her chair was still running and undamaged. Fortunately she had a spare tube in her purse.

“It turned out that all the drivers, maintenance people and management at Phoenix Transit knew about the faulty lift barricades. The city had contacted the [lift] manufacturer, who was willing to retrofit the bus lifts with a system to prevent the barricade from giving way, but it would have cost about $1,200 per lift and the city decided to take a chance rather than retrofit the whole bus fleet.”

Within three months of the accident, Scharf was riding the bus to work again. When she received her settlement payment in 2001, she purchased a used Dodge caravan, but the bus still offered more independence because she had to hire drivers or have family drive the van.

She retired from ASU in 2005 and now lives in Tubac, Ariz., which is too small for a bus system.

Lessons learned

“Find out if the lift buses have been retrofitted with the manufacturer’s kit. Put pressure on local transit authorities to check out their lift buses and ensure they’re safe. Also, pressure them to buy the new buses with fold-out ramps. Don’t ride the buses unless you know they’re safe. Even knowing about the fault and what to avoid doesn’t ensure safety.”


In 2002, while leaving a popular electronics store in Houston with his 10-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, Scott Schneider, 51, was told by an employee to exit by the back door, turn the corner and use the ramp to the parking lot. What Schneider didn’t know was that there wasn’t a ramp.

Schneider, who uses a power wheelchair because of Becker muscular dystrophy, went through the open door, which was blocking the view of the ramp that was supposed to be there. After turning left around the door, he found himself jumping off a 12-inch drop-off.

“All of a sudden my wheels were over nothing,” said Schneider, a former MDA national vice president.

Because he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, Schneider flipped out of his chair and landed on the cement, breaking both of his hips and both of his femurs. Frantic, Elizabeth (now 16), called 911.

“If I had been wearing a seatbelt, I probably would’ve died because the chair would’ve crushed me,” he said.

After a 10-week hospital stay and several operations, he went home for an even more difficult recovery, in which he died twice from pulmonary embolisms (blood clots in the lungs) and was brought back to life. It was a year before he started to heal.

“All that down time had a negative affect on my dystrophy,” said Schneider. “I had a ramp van that I drove, and I was independent before this accident. After the accident, basically I lost that little bit of muscle that I had left that allowed me to drive in my van and be independent.

“Believe it or not, the wheelchair didn’t have all that much damage to it — just a few dings and scraped paint. The wheelchair is a little bit more solid than I am.”

Schneider was left with severe osteoporosis in his shoulders, hips, knees and legs, and had to retire as vice president of Goodwill Industries. He filed suit against the company, which ended up paying approximately $450,000 in hospital bills.

“Lawsuits are very difficult because no amount of money could ever get back what I’ve lost,” he said.

Lessons learned

The only way that the accident could’ve been prevented was if the building was built to be wheelchair accessible, said Schneider.

“Actually as it turns out, on the original plans of the building it was all supposed to be ramped but they, for whatever reason, changed the plans,” he said. “You know, if they thought about the disabled community to begin with, something like that would have never happened.”

Schneider advises people to make sure store employees are educated and more sensitive to the needs of customers with disabilities.

“The humorous part of it is that [the store] painted some new stripes, but they haven’t gone back to fix it appropriately.”

Slippin’ & slidin’

Cindy Deatherage
Cindy Deatherage

It was the day after Thanksgiving 2005, the busiest shopping day of the year, and Cindy Deatherage, 45, of Chenoa, Ill., was fighting the mobs of shoppers with her husband, Larry. They left one store with their Christmas goodies, loaded into their van and hurried off to another store two blocks away.

“So we thought, we won’t tie down [the wheelchair] for a two-minute drive from one shopping center to the other,” said Deatherage, who has Friedreich’s ataxia and uses a power wheelchair. “We didn’t plan on everybody else driving crazy, and my husband had to apply the brakes really quick.”

Deatherage and her 300-pound chair slid from the backseat to the front of the van, just behind the passenger seat. She wasn’t hurt, just scared, but she realized it could’ve been worse if a vehicle had hit them.

Lessons learned

“I guess the moral of the story is to use your tie downs — they’re there for a reason,” she said. “Take the time to tie down.

“It will take you more time to undo the harm if you don’t.”

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