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Comparing Wheelchair Manufacturers

by Gary Karp,
There are a few manufacturers who dominate the wheelchair market, but a number of small producers make important products, too.

Like other manufacturers, wheelchair producers come in many varieties. There are large corporate wheelchair manufacturers, small specialized producers, and innovative new companies hoping to make a name for themselves. Naturally, you will want to find out what various companies offer before deciding which manufacturer produces the optimum chair for you.

Advantages of major manufacturers

As you begin shopping for the right chair, you will soon hear the names of the largest manufacturers of wheelchairs and accessories: Invacare, Drive Medical, Sunrise/Quickie, and Permobil. These large companies employ hundreds of people, and some are owned by parent companies with considerable financial resources.

Greater resources mean major wheelchair manufacturers can invest more in research and development than their smaller competitors. They can afford to build many prototypes, and can take a little longer to develop new designs since these large firms have a steadier stream of revenue from existing products.

Following are additional advantages offered by large wheelchair manufacturers.

  • They have comprehensive lines of wheelchair products, with plenty of options and accessories.
  • They have been in the business long enough to have a lot of experience behind them.
  • They will have refined their manufacturing and design over those years, and will probably be around for the foreseeable future.
  • They are reputable, and generally make good chairs, assuming you select the right model, properly configured.
  • Your dealer will have more experience maintaining and repairing chairs from larger manufacturers.

Some would also argue that finding parts and service away from home is easier when your chair is made by one of the large firms, although the very complexity and vast array of options from the large producers make it impossible for dealers to carry all parts for all chairs. Whether you travel or stay at home, you are likely to have to wait for a part to be shipped. If you travel often, availability of parts is definitely something to ask about before deciding to purchase.

Don’t choose a large manufacturer too quickly

The same resources that allow large companies to offer you a wide selection also mean they have more money for advertising and marketing. It is easier for them to get exposure through magazines and trade shows. They are able to sell more chairs, often at higher prices, so they can offer dealers more profit, which encourages dealers to recommend those chairs. In other words, the major manufacturers have all of the usual advantages of large companies in any competitive marketplace, and it is easy for consumers to assume these big names must be the best choice.

Not everyone agrees. Some people believe that the large producers are not putting enough priority on the individual, such as this representative of a small maker:

We’re trying to stay away from what we feel some of our competitors are doing—trying to sell as many chairs as they can. They don’t concern themselves enough with whether it’s what the person really needs.

This is not to say that the large producers don't care, or that they don't have equally supportive people on their staff. This therapist employed by a large producer works with customers to ensure they get the right wheels:

If we don't have the right features for what someone needs, I will tell the sales staff that they should be in a chair from one of our competitors. We might have a very comprehensive line of products, but no one can do it all, and the customer must have the right chair.

Even if higher profits don’t come into the picture, there are other reasons why a dealer may focus on chairs from the major producers, overlooking a potentially more appropriate product from a smaller company. Dealers can’t know everything that is available, and even if they were to share everything they do know, it would probably overwhelm the customer. This wheelchair salesman agrees:

If I were to bring all of my product information with me when I go out to meet a customer, I would have to carry four file drawers and a shelf unit, and even then it wouldn't cover everything!

It’s equally unrealistic to expect therapists to have all the answers. A representative from a small manufacturer offers this advice:

Therapists tend to be used to dealing with the large suppliers. People need to do their own research to find what’s best for them, not always accept what’s being recommended just because the therapist or dealer say so. It’s natural for therapists and dealers to suggest what they know, and they only have so much time to learn everything that’s out there.

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